On September 6, as the nation prepared to celebrate Pakistan’s Defence Day to honor the martyrs and veterans of the 1965 war with India, a significant event unfolded. Hundreds of militants from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) launched a massive attack in the Bambouret Valley of Chitral, the northernmost district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, and, by extension, Pakistan itself.
The attack occurred in the early morning hours. The Pakistan military spokesperson later issued a statement, confirming that 12 militants were killed in the clashes, while four security forces personnel also tragically lost their lives. While the security forces managed to repel the TTP attack in Chitral, the incident carries profound significance from multiple perspectives. Reports and official accounts suggest that hundreds of TTP militants infiltrated Chitral from across the border in Afghanistan. Chitral shares its border with Afghanistan’s Nooristan and Kunar provinces. The audacity and scale of the attack raise concerns within Pakistan, particularly among its security institutions.
It had been widely believed that the back of militancy in Pakistan had been broken after years of fighting and military operations by Pakistan’s security forces. By 2016, after nearly nine years of relentless offensives against militants, it was thought that the TTP had been largely eradicated, with remnants relocating to Afghanistan. However, since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, there has been a resurgence of the TTP. The Afghan Taliban’s support for the Pakistani militants, whom they see as their brethren-in-arms, has emboldened the TTP to carry out regular, including large-scale, terrorist attacks in KP province and Balochistan, both of which border Afghanistan. Tragically, hundreds of security forces personnel have lost their lives in TTP attacks since 2021. Pakistan has repeatedly urged the Afghan Taliban regime to rein in the TTP, but these calls have gone unanswered.
In 2022, at the prodding of the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani authorities engaged in talks with the TTP, aiming for the group to lay down its arms and renounce militancy to quell the rising threat. Unfortunately, these talks faltered due to the TTP’s obstinate stance and its unreasonable demands, which included territorial concessions from the state. The Afghan Taliban have a deep sense of gratitude toward the TTP for its support in their insurgency, which they have dubbed a ‘war of liberation,’ against the elected Afghan government and the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces present in Afghanistan from 2001 until their complete withdrawal in 2021, following the February 2020 agreement with the United States. However, the Afghan Taliban’s argument to convince Pakistani authorities to engage with the TTP has been their fear that the TTP might align itself with the Afghanistan-based anti-Taliban group, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K), also known as Daesh-e-Khorasan. The Afghan Taliban have expressed concerns that such an alliance would pose a significant security threat to both the Taliban regime and Pakistan. Consequently, the Afghan Taliban have sought to appease the Pakistani Taliban to maintain a distance from IS-K.
Against the backdrop of the TTP’s attack by hundreds of militants on Chitral villages and their brief capture, this incident holds profound significance. The substantial militant force’s assault and infiltration raise grave concerns. Chitral has historically been one of the most peaceful areas of Pakistan along its 2,640-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan. Notably, since its emergence in 2007, the TTP has maintained a strong presence in Pakistan’s border regions with Afghanistan, particularly in the Pakhtun tribal belt, spanning from Bajaur tribal district in the north to South Waziristan tribal district in the south of the province, and even extending into Balochistan province. However, Chitral has remained remarkably peaceful. This is evident from the fact that, except for a 2011 attack on Chitral Scouts, a subsidiary of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) in KP, which resulted in the loss of 32 security forces personnel, there has been no major TTP attack in Chitral. The TTP’s inability to capture or launch significant attacks in Chitral may be attributed to the lack of support from the district’s residents.
Chitral is one of the largest districts in KP, known for its picturesque valleys and tourist resorts. While over the past 15 years, much of KP has been off-limits to local and international tourists due to security concerns, Chitral has continued to welcome them. The TTP’s recent focus on Chitral likely stems from its recognition of the region’s extreme strategic importance. It may have realized that the peaceful nature of the Chitrali people could make them susceptible to intimidation, enabling the infiltration of their villages and valleys to establish hideouts and launching pads for militant activities.
It is noteworthy that the TTP’s attack and infiltration in Chitral have occurred at a time when the security situation has become volatile in the neighboring Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region. A sectarian conflict erupted in GB, leading to significant public protests. The roots of this conflict can be traced back to the forced change of government in GB, where the popular chief minister from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Khurshid Khan, was replaced some time ago. The political and sectarian tensions in GB appear to have attracted the attention of TTP militants, prompting their entry into Chitral with the aim of extending their presence into GB and complicating matters, particularly by targeting Shiite community members through attacks.
Hopefully, the TTP will not be able to infiltrate Chitral in significant numbers due to the lack of local support, which remains strong in Pakhtun tribal districts from Bajaur to Waziristan, as well as in the Swat-Malakand region and Peshawar Valley. Furthermore, given Chitral’s strategic importance due to its location on the border with Afghanistan and its proximity to the GB region, Pakistan’s security forces and police have maintained vigilance, which should deter the TTP from surreptitious entry. Nonetheless, the TTP is likely to persist in its efforts to infiltrate and establish hideouts in Chitral, demanding serious attention from the government and security establishment.
The most concerning aspect of this situation is the Afghan Taliban regime’s apparent indifference to Pakistan’s requests and warnings not to support the Pakistani Taliban. Perhaps due to Pakistan’s extreme political and economic crises, the Afghan Taliban regime may perceive Pakistan as weak and is pursuing its own agenda. Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban regime, has consistently regarded KP province and parts of Balochistan as Afghan territories forcibly taken away by British colonial rulers of India in the 19th century. Consequently, no Afghan regime has ever recognized the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan has rightly fenced the 2,640-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan after the valiant efforts of our soldiers. However, Kabul has not only objected to this fencing but has also, on several occasions, cut the fence at a few points. Pakistan must engage decisively with the Afghan Taliban regime, but achieving this will be challenging without political and economic stability.