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Non-international armed conflicts in Pakistan

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

The government of Pakistan is involved in non-international armed conflicts with various armed groups acting throughout its territory, particularly Taliban-affiliated groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and independence fighters in Balochistan.

There are multiple and overlapping armed conflicts in Pakistan. The conflicts have also spilled over into Afghanistan.

  • In 2002, Pakistan began conducting military operations against foreign fighters hiding in its tribal areas. In response to these attacks, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan group (TTP) formed out of veterans of armed conflicts in neighbouring countries, such as Afghanistan, and local tribal groups. B. Brumfield, N. Ng, ‘Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?’, CNN, 17 December 2014; A. Bellal (ed) The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 172.
  • In 2004, Pakistan began launching military offensives against fighters believed to be affiliated to al-Qaeda in the tribal areas near its Afghan border. The United States simultaneously began targeting suspected al-Qaeda members in the same area through drone strikes. Further offensives were launched in subsequent years. Pakistan profile – Timeline’, BBC, 2 March 2017. In 2014, Pakistan launched a ‘counter-terrorism’ operation, Zarb-e-Azb, against various non-state armed groups.
  • In parallel, armed groups are fighting the government over independence of the province of Balochistan. See also: Pakistan: Conflict Profile, Insight on Conflict, May 2010.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict’ in our classification section.

​Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration, and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – intensity of violence’ in our classification section.

Armed clashes and attacks take place in various regions of Pakistan, including its tribal areas and major cities such as Islamabad and Lahore. Amnesty International, Pakistan 2016/2017, Amnesty International Annual Report 2016/2017; A Bellal (ed), The War Report . Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 174. While attacks and armed clashes dropped in number in 2015, they still occur regularly and have on occasion caused big numbers of casualties. Islamist Militancy in Pakistan, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 June 2017. For example, between January and April 2017, dozens of armed clashes were reported in several districts. The IISS Armed Conflict database reported 16 armed clashes in April 2017, 23 in March 2017, 21 in February 2017 and 18 in January 2017, see Pakistan (KPK and Northwest); Pakistan (Balochistan); Pakistan (Sectarian Violence), IISS Armed Conflict Database (restricted access); see also Conflict Barometer 2016, Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, 2017, pp 156ff. Similarly, during the last years several thousand fighters of armed groups and several hundred Pakistani soldiers were reportedly killed. See A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 177; Islamist Militancy in Pakistan, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 June 2017.

The Pakistani government has carried out protracted military operations involving both ground and air forces. A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 176.

By 2014, nearly 1 million persons newly displaced by the conflict were registered by Pakistani authorities, resulting in nearly two million displaced persons in total. Annyssa Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp 177, 181. The number has since been reduced, with people being able to return to their homes in parts of the country. International Committee of the Red Cross, Annual Report 2016 – Pakistan, 23 May 2017, p 338. However, an estimated 464,000 people continue to be internally displaced by on-going violence and conflict. Pakistan, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2016.

The conflicts in Pakistan have also spilled over into Afghanistan. Amongst others, splinter groups of the Pakistani Taliban have allegedly joined ranks with the Afghan Taliban and use Pakistani territory as a safe haven from which to participate in the non-international armed conflict in Afghanistan. D.Nelson, A. Yusufzai, ‘Pakistan Taliban Splits "Over War With Islamabad"’, The Telegraph, 5 September 2014.

Organization of the armed groups

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms, the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms, the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations, the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. cease fire or peace agreements. If the criterion of a minimum organization of the armed group is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict - organization’ in our classification section.

Attacks in Pakistan are claimed by a variety of armed groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army Gunmen Kill 10 Labourers in Balochistan’s Gwadar’, Al Jazeera, 13 May 2017, the Khorasan Branch of the Islamic State group (IS-K), A. Hashim, ‘Bomb Atttack Kills at Least 25 in Pakistan’s Balochistan’, Al Jazeera, 12 May 2017, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar A. Hashim, ‘Roadside Bomb Kills Bus Passengers in Kurram District’, Al Jazeera, 25 April 2017; Islamist Militancy in Pakistan, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 June 2017, or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi N. Zahid, ‘Who is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi?’, VOA Extremism Watch, 25 October 2016.

The Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is an umbrella group reuniting some of these groups and cooperating with others. Despite being a relatively loose structure composed of various smaller armed groups, the TTP reportedly has an official common leadership, a central spokesperson and a common public relations policy. H. Abbas, A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Combating Terrorims Center, 15 January 2008; A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp 173, 174. However, this structure has at times been called into question by internal division, fracturing and voluntary surrenders of high ranking members. S. Masood, I. T. Mehsud, ‘A Former Spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban Surrenders’, The New York Times, 17 April 2017. Still, attacks continue being carried out in the name of the TTP. D. Hassan, ‘Deadly Blast Near Lahore Targets Pakistan Census Workers’, The New York Times, 5 April 2017; J. Burke, ‘Bacha Khan University Attack: What is Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan?’, The Guardian, 20 January 2016. The TTP have claimed or carried out some of the most notorious and large-scale attacks, such as the Peshawar school attack in 2014 Pakistan Taliban: Peshawar School Attack Leaves 141 Dead’, BBC, 16 December 2014; A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2016, p 176., the attack at Bacha Khan University Pakistan Attacks: At Least 30 Dead in Terror Raid at Bacha Khan University’, The Guardian, 20 January 2016., and the Karachi airport attack Karachi Airport: Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Claims Attack’, BBC News, 11 June 2014., which illustrates their operational capacity. In addition, they have been involved in attacks against prominent individuals. They carried out the shooting of activist Malala Yousafzai: R. Leiby, M. Langevine Leiby, ‘Taliban Say It Shot Pakistani Teen For Advocating Girls’ Rights’, The Washington Post, 10 October 2012; ‘TTP Claims Responsibility of Attack on Malala’, The Nation, 9 October 2012. It has also been alleged that they were responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto: ‘Q&A: Benazir Bhutto Assassination’, BBC News, 3 May 2013.

At times, the TTP has controlled territory in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 173. It has been controlling the Swat Valley for a number of years. Stanford University, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Mapping Militant Organizations, last updated 7 August 2012. Reportedly, the TTP created both underground tunnel systems and IED-preparation factories. A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 176; M. Haider, ‘Zarb-i-Azb: More IED Factories, Explosives Recovered in NWA’, Dawn, 2 July 2014; S. Saifi, ‘Inside Militants’ Secret Tunnels in Pakistan’, CNN, 11 July 2014. The TTP has claimed responsibility for attacks in neighbouring countries, such as a 2009 attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan. J. Warrick, ‘Suicide Bomber Attacks CIA Base in Afghanistan, Killing At Least 8 Americans’, The Washington Post, 31 December 2009.

The TTP’s organisational structure is further illustrated by its ability to enter peace talks with the Pakistani government. Pakistan Enters Peace Talks With Taliban’, BBC, 6 February 2014; 'Pakistan Taliban Announce Month Truce', BBC, 1 March 2014. Moreover, it gives interviews to media. It has released videos showing its armed activities. S. Mehsud, ‘Taliban Video Highlights Revenge on Pakistan Military’, Reuters, 21 January 2012.

Some fractions have broken away from the TTP, such as Jamaat-e-Ahrar (or Jamaat-ul-Ahrar), who took over some of the TTP structure. I.T. Mehsud, D. Walsh, ‘Hard-Line Splinter Group, Galvanized by IS, Emerges From Pakistani Taliban’, The New York Times, 26 August 2014. They have carried out a considerable number of attacks, including some of the deadliest attacks in recent years. Islamist Militancy in Pakistan, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 June 2017. Other high-level attacks are being attributed to the group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Islamist Militancy in Pakistan, Council on Foreign Relations, 5 June 2017.

A number of different groups are operating in Pakistan and their relationships are not always clear. Shifting alliances and affiliations, in-fighting and collaborations have been reported. A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 174. The Haqqani Network, for instance, has both been reported to fight alongside the TTP, but also for the Pakistani government and the Afghan Taliban. Z. Laub, Pakistan’s New Generation of Terrorists, Council on Foreign Relations, 18 November 2013; B. Brumfield, N. Ng, ‘Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?’, CNN, 17 December 2014. Al-Qaeda appears to have strong links with the TTP, but the exact degree of involvement is difficult to ascertain. Stanford University, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Mapping Military Organizations, last updated 15 July 2016. Similarly, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has been reported to have ties to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. N. Zahid, ‘Who is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi?’, VOA Extremism Watch, 25 October 2016.

United States drone strikes

The United States began conducting drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda members in Pakistan’s tribal areas in 2004. The Bureau of Investigate Journalism maintains a database that tracks drone strikes and estimated deaths since January 2004. For Pakistan, by July 2017, it reported 428 confirmed drone strikes with the overall number of deaths ranging from 2511 to 4020. Drone strikes have also been targeting other groups in Pakistan, namely the Afghan Taliban J. Boone and S. Engel Rasmussen, ‘US Drone Strike in Pakistan Kills Taliban Leader Mullah Mansoor’, The Guardian, 22 May 2016., the Pakistan Taliban TTP T. Craig, ‘Drone Kills Taliban Chief Hakimullah Mehsud; Pakistan Accuses U.S. of Derailing Peace Talks’, The Washington Post, 2 November 2013., and the Haqqani Network. Haqqani Network Commander Reportedly Killed by Drone Strike in Pakistan’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 13 June 2017; A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2016, p 176. The U.S. has also sent forces into Pakistan, notably in 2011 when al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed. Moreover, the U.S. has reportedly killed top commanders of the TTP. A. Bellal (ed.), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2015, p 173.

Two issues are raised by the U.S. drone strikes for the classification of armed conflicts.

First, the question arises whether carrying out drone strikes on Pakistani territory without the Pakistani government’s consent leads to an international armed conflict. For further information, see ‘contemporary challenges – the relevance of consent’ in our classification section. While the U.S. intervention generally seems to be tolerated by Pakistan, at times the Pakistani government has objected to it or called it a violation of the state’s sovereignty, US Drone Strike Violation of Pakistan’s Sovereignty, Says PM’, Dawn, 23 May 2016. especially for strikes outside the tribal areas. B.S. Syed, ‘US Strike Crosses "Red Line" on Balochistan’, Dawn, 23 May 2016. However, according to some reports, the Pakistani government only publicly objects to the drone strikes, but privately acquiesces to them or even cooperates. Secret Memos Show Pakistan Endorsed Drone Strikes’, BBC, 24 October 2013. The Pakistani position is inconsistent over time and among different government entities. For a detailed description, see Z. Ahmend, ‘Strengthening Standards for Consent: The Case of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan’, 23 Michigan State International Law Review 459 (2015), 491ff. Neither the U.S. nor Pakistan seems to consider that the strikes have triggered a conflict between the two states. While the ambiguous attitude of Pakistan on the drone strikes exemplarily illustrates the difficulty and sensitivity of establishing consent in some situations, overall there appears to be some form of consent. In this sense, see N. Lubell, ‘The War (?) Against Al-Qaeda’ in E. Wilmshurst (ed), International Law and the Classification of Conflicts, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp 433-434. For a thorough analysis, see Z. Ahmend, ‘Strengthening Standards for Consent: The Case of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan’, 23 Michigan State International Law Review 459 (2015), 491ff and M. Byrne, ‘Consent and the Use of Force: An Examination of “Intervention by Invitation” as a Basis for US Drone Strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen’ 3 Journal on the Use of Force and International Law 1 (2016), 110ff.

A second challenge to be addressed is whether the U.S. is involved in a non-international armed conflict in Pakistan. This conclusion could be reached on different grounds. This question significantly influenced the debate on the legal regime applicable to the killing of bin Laden. For the view that the killing of bin Laden took place as a part of an armed conflict, see K. J. Heller, ‘Quick Thoughts on UBL’s Killing – and a Response to Lewis’, Opinio Juris Blog, 4 May 2011; for the contrary view, see M. Milanovic, ‘Was the Killing of Osama Bin Laden Lawful?', EJIL: Talk! Blog, 2 May 2011. First, the U.S. could be considered a party to the pre-existing non-international armed conflict between the Pakistani government and the TTP and other armed groups. Yet, while this may be the case for strikes which are consented to by the Pakistani government, this approach does not account for all the strikes due to the ambiguity surrounding Pakistani consent. For a detailed analysis, concluding that the strikes between 2007-2013 were carried out with Pakistani consent and part of the non-international armed conflict, see M. Brookman-Byrne, ‘Drone Use “Outisde Areas of Active Hostilities”: An Examination of the Legal Paradigms Governing US Covert Remote Strikes’ 64 Netherlands International Law Review 1 (2017), pp 17 ff. Another argument relates to the blurred boundaries between the non-international armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. To the extent that U.S drone strikes are targeting individuals linked to the fighting in Afghanistan, these drone strikes may be considered as part of the spill-over of the non-international armed conflict in Afghanistan. For a detailed analysis, see M. Brookman-Byrne, ‘Drone Use “Outisde Areas of Active Hostilities”: An Examination of the Legal Paradigms Governing US Covert Remote Strikes’ 64 Netherlands International Law Review 1 (2017), pp 14 ff; N. Lubell, ‘The War (?) Against Al-Qaeda’ in E. Wilmshurst (ed), International Law and the Classification of Conflicts, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp 437-439. However, this approach does not account for all the drone strikes. Finally, the U.S. could be involved in a separate non-international armed conflict against al-Qaeda and/or the TTP and associated groups in Pakistan if the criteria of intensity and degree of organization of the groups are fulfilled. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict’ in our classification section. Without specifically referring to Pakistan, the U.S. asserts that it ‘is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban, and associated forces’. Human Rights Committee, List of Issues in Relation to the Fourth Periodic Report of the United States of United States of America, UN doc CCPR/C/USA/ and Corr.1, Adopted by the Committee at its 107th session (11-28 March 2013). Replies of the United States of America to the List of Issues, UN doc CCPR/C/USA/Q/4/Add.1, 13 September 2013, §34. For further information on the so called global war on terror, see ‘non-international armed conflict – “global war on terror”' in our classification section. Yet, it is questionable whether the requisite degree of intensity is reached. M. Brookman-Byrne, ‘Drone Use “Outisde Areas of Active Hostilities”: An Examination of the Legal Paradigms Governing US Covert Remote Strikes’ 64 Netherlands International Law Review 1 (2017), pp 19 ff. Moreover, the non-state parties to such a conflict are difficult to establish due to the complex nature of the relationship between the TTP, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, which are all targets of the U.S. drone strikes. See also N. Lubell, ‘The War (?) Against Al-Qaeda’ in E. Wilmshurst (ed), International Law and the Classification of Conflicts, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp 435-437. In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross rejects the concept of a global non-international armed conflict between a non-state armed group and a state without having a territorial anchor. Instead, ‘the existence of an armed conflict or the relationship of a particular military operation to an existing armed conflict has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.’ See L. Cameron, B. Demeyere, J-M. Henckaerts, E. La Haye and I. Müller, with contributions by C. Droege, R. Geiss and L. Gisel, ‘Article 3: Conflicts Not of an International Character’, ICRC, Commentary on the First Geneva Convention, 2016, §§477-482. For these reasons, RULAC does not consider that the U.S. is involved in an armed conflict in Pakistan, while acknowledging that some of the drone strikes may be a spill-over from the non-international armed conflict in Afghanistan. The lack of transparency concerning drone strikes hinders the assessment whether particular strikes are part of the non-international armed conflict or not. For a detailed analysis, see Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Out of the Shadows. Recommendations to Advance Transparency in the Use of Lethal Force,  June 2017.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that provides for the minimum standard to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active parts in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials. In addition, all parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and to investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

A wide array of non-state armed groups is active in Pakistan. Below is a selection of the most important groups or alliances. For further information on other groups, see A. Bellal (ed), The War Report. Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, 2016, p 172 ff; Stanford University, Pakistan, Mapping Militant Organizations.

Last updated: Tuesday 12th September 2017