Islamist Militancy in Pakistan
Pakistan continues to face significant threats to its internal security from factions of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups, including an affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Although attacks have slowed in recent years, the TTP and sectarian militant groups continue to target security forces and civilians.
In July 2018, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was elected prime minister in Pakistan's national elections. Khan received criticism for embracing controversial blasphemy laws, an issue pushed to the forefront of the election by the participation of several banned militant groups—including one led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a designated global terrorist—operating as political parties to contest seats. The TTP targeted campaign rallies and polling places in the lead-up to the elections, including an attack in Mastung in July 2018 that killed more than one hundred forty people and wounded nearly two hundred others.
After former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to negotiate a peace agreement with the TTP unraveled and militants attacked an international airport in Karachi, the government launched an offensive in June 2014 against militant strongholds in North Waziristan.
The TTP responded to the offensive with several attacks, including a December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed nearly one hundred fifty people, mostly schoolchildren, in the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history.
In response, Pakistani political parties agreed on a comprehensive National Action Plan to combat terrorism and extremist ideology across the country, and Sharif lifted a death penalty moratorium to allow the execution of convicted terrorists. After nearly two years, in June 2016 the Pakistani military declared that the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had been cleared of militants. Nearly five hundred Pakistani soldiers died in the clearing operations, which killed roughly 3,500 militants.
Despite the government’s declaration of success and a decline in frequency of attacks in recent years, the TTP and other militants continue to operate and carry out major attacks. These include a March 2016 suicide bombing in a park in Lahore that targeted families celebrating Easter, killing almost seventy people and wounding over three hundred, and an August 2016 suicide bombing of a hospital in Quetta that targeted a gathering of lawyers, killing nearly seventy-five people and injuring at least one hundred.
The military, which has historically been dominant over civilian governments, is believed to still be providing support to the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other militant proxy groups that often collaborate with the TTP.
2018 brought a shift in the security relationship between the United States and Pakistan, as the Donald J. Trump administration moved to suspend security assistance to Pakistan over a perceived continuing unwillingness to target militants who receive sanctuary in Pakistani territory and carry out attacks in Afghanistan. More than $800 million in security assistance was suspended or redirected in 2018, and the United States has cut off access for Pakistani military officers to U.S. military training and education programs, in an effort to pressure the Pakistani government to change policy. The shift comes as international pressure on Pakistan to tackle militancy and terrorism grows; in June 2018 the Financial Action Task Force placed Pakistan on the so-called “grey list” of countries not doing enough to stop money laundering and terrorist financing.
Attacks claimed by the Islamic State have raised concerns over its growing presence and influence in Pakistan. Many of the militants fighting under the Islamic State’s banner in Afghanistan are believed to be former TTP militants who fled across the border, a phenomenon that has raised fears of an Islamic State-inspired campaign of violence inside Pakistan.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan could increase regional instability by allowing militants from Pakistan to establish a safe haven in Afghanistan. Additionally, acute instability in Pakistan has security implications for neighboring countries Afghanistan and India. The TTP is closely allied with the Afghan Taliban in its battle against Afghan troops, and India fears that anti-state and state-sponsored Pakistani militants could carry out cross-border terrorist attacks. Moreover, the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to attack or theft by nonstate actors remains a major concern for U.S. and Indian policymakers.