One of the unpleasant byproducts of the so-called War on Terror launched by the Bush Administration in October 2001 following 9/11 to root out al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime supporting it, was its blow-back for neighboring Pakistan. Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Afghan and foreign resistance fighters battling the Soviet troops in Afghanistan had taken sanctuary on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) border. They were fully supported financially and militarily by the US, the West, and many Arab and Islamic countries.
This rugged and desolate area is almost inaccessible, which makes counter-terrorism operations problematic, to say the least. All these years of incessant warfare has also resulted in the Afghan Taliban brand being replicated by a similar violent extremist movement calling itself the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). The TTP and the Afghan Taliban sometime coordinate their actions although their objectives, in some cases at least, are different. The Afghan Taliban are fighting to end what they call the American occupation of Afghanistan as well as the overthrow of the pro-American Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai. The TTP's aim is to overthrow the elected government in Pakistan and replace the current governmental system with their version of Islamic government.
The adherents of the TTP are mostly recruited from the economically backward regions of southern Punjab where opportunities for gainful employment of young men are scarce. Despite the Pakistan government's attempts to degrade it for the past decade or so, the TTP has shown remarkable resilience. It has taken advantage of the sanctuary provided by the remoteness of the Af-Pak border as well as the ease with which they can retreat into Afghanistan, thereby avoiding actions against them by the Pakistan army.
Also worth noting is the fact that in 2009, the TTP was able to overrun the Swat Valley, which emboldened them to move southward toward Pakistan's capital around 60 miles away. The Pakistan army, realizing the danger, was able to recapture Swat and drive the militants away from this area. The TTP then engaged in attacking army installations including the General Headquarters of the Army, a naval base, and other prominent armed forces installations.
The attack on the Karachi airport which acts as a hub to Pakistan's largest city of around 18 million, was the latest example of the TTP's assault on the Pakistan armed forces. It was also an attempt to portray the impunity with which the TTP could continue to attack major targets in Pakistan. A TTP spokesman has accepted responsibility stating that the action was in revenge for one of their leaders killed by a recent drone strike. An equally plausible reason could be, that the on-off talks initiated by the government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the TTP leadership had ground to a halt. The TTP had continued with its attacks inside Pakistan which has caused increasing anger at this indiscriminate violence taking many innocent lives, among Pakistani society. Since many army casualties running into the thousands over the past few years can be placed at the door of the TTP, the army, which remains an influential actor in Pakistani politics, is putting pressure on Nawaz Sharif to use military means to quell the TTP insurgency. This perhaps explains the recent bombing and strafing of TTP hideouts in Pakistan's tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
The attack on the airport by the 10 suicide bombers was in response to the above actions of the Pakistan government. All 10 bombers were surrounded and killed in a few hours by the elite Pakistani commandos. Overall, around 24 persons lost their lives in this latest face-off between the Pakistan government and the TTP. Another interesting feature of this attack was the presence Uzbek fighters among the suicide bombers. The TTP has explained that the recent bombings by the Pakistan army had killed a few Uzbek militants and thus the revenge attack by the TTP included some of them.
A portion of the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is outside the writ of both governments. With the installation of the next Afghan president, it is of huge importance to both countries to coordinate their counter-terrorism strategies in order to eradicate the menace of violent extremism which constitutes a clear and present danger to the integrity and progress of both countries. This is not an easy task, as terrorist insurgencies take a long time before petering out. If Pakistan and Afghanistan can cast aside their mutual suspicions and fears about each other, they will multiply the chances of achieving success in their counter-terrorist actions against violent extremism. It is crucially important that the bordering regions should not be ceded to extremists of various stripes to use as a sanctuary and a launching pad for their nihilist activities in this region and even beyond.
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