Splits within Taliban movement may somewhat reduce tempo of group’s activity in coming months, but further attacks remain likely
The Australian Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index 2017, which was published on 15 November, noted a 12% reduction in the number of terrorism-related deaths in Pakistan in 2016 compared to the previous year. This marks the lowest such number in the last decade, and largely reflects a decline in the activity of the Pakistani Taliban, which has historically been responsible for the largest number of casualties.
This drop may partly be the result of increased US drone strikes in North Waziristan, and the Army’s Zarb-e-Azb Operation against militants in the region, which lasted from June 2014 until April 2016 and will have disrupted Taliban elements’ operational capabilities. Zarb-e-Azb largely avoided targeting militants that were primarily engaged in violence outside the country, and this strategy may have reduced violence further by minimising the groups’ desire to conduct retaliatory attacks inside Pakistan.
In addition, it is likely that splits within the Taliban movement, which reduced the core group’s ability to carry out attacks, contributed to the decline over this period. The group’s leader, Mullah Fazlullah, said in April that such divisions had almost been eliminated, and indeed, the Taliban conducted a large suicide bombing in Lahore in July in an effort to show strength following the divisions. However, it has not maintained a high tempo of attacks since then, showing that although it maintains substantial capabilities, divisions are likely continuing to restrict its operations.
Moreover, separate reports from this period indicate that the group’s Jamaat ul-Ahrar (JuA) faction, which has conducted regular violence until now despite the difficulties facing the Taliban proper, has now suffered a split as a result of differences over operational practices. A new splinter group, Hizb ul-Ahrar, formed on 11 November under the leadership of former JuA commander Mukarram Khan, who reportedly opposed JuA’s targeting of civilians and Christians.
Such internal disagreements may continue to somewhat reduce the operational effectiveness of the Taliban and its splinter factions in the coming months. Nonetheless, they will not prevent attacks altogether, and further strikes against state-linked interests and particularly the security forces are likely. Meanwhile, Islamic State (IS) may seek to step up its activity in the region, as it seeks to show expansion and maintain its position as the foremost global jihadist group despite heavy territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it claimed a low-level sympathiser attack against a police post in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on 17 November, marking its first action, albeit undirected, in J&K. Any rise in IS activity may also drive an increase in Taliban operations, as the groups compete for support among Pakistan’s substantial jihadist community.