By Maisam Iltaf
“Alhamdulillah, the [Afghanistan] Islamic Emirate has, by the grace of God, defeated the Western infidels and brought glory to the Islamic world,” Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) said in an Urdu statement on August 17, two days after the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
“On this great victory, TTP renews its allegiance to Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhunzada and vows to fight for Sharia Law, God willing.”
TTP was unsurprisingly so quick to congratulate the Taliban’s return to power for this “victory” has provided ideological and moral inspiration and impetus to follow in the footsteps of its ideological twin to ultimately overthrow the Pakistani state and establish a similar Islamic Emirate in Pakistan.
Islamabad too celebrated the victory of its longstanding ally but proved to be misguided, especially after the US withdrawal, that the Taliban would crack down on the TTP in Afghanistan or pressure the group to yield to Pakistan’s demands.
While the Taliban’s Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is closest to Pakistan, did mediate peace negotiations between the Pakistani military and the TTP in Afghanistan in late 2021, a subsequent ceasefire was short-lived and the negotiations soon failed.
The past two years have shown that the Taliban takeover significantly strengthened and emboldened the TTP, not to speak of other Pakistani Islamist groups, as TTP continue to ramp up its anti-state violent campaign across the country.
With no significant breakthrough in Pakistan-TTP peace negotiations, the Taliban appeared to be assertive and sympathetic to the TTP and the group has found a sanctuary in Afghanistan from where it can plan and coordinate to launch deadly attacks in Pakistan despite Pakistan’s use of cross-border airstrikes to target members of TTP in Afghanistan. These airstrikes as well as the sporadic clashes over the Durand line between Pakistan and the Taliban, which remains unresolved, have caused further tensions between the two.
The Peshawar suicide attack at a mosque on January 30, 2023, which claimed over 100 lives, mostly police officials, further testified to Taliban and TTP’s relations. In the aftermath of the attack, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister Emir Khan Muttaqi not only slammed the Pakistan government’s claim of TTP hideouts in Afghanistan but also raged at the country by saying that the TTP is Pakistan’s internal problem which it should sort out itself and that Taliban should not be blamed for it.
Although TTP is a separate group from the Taliban, it is inspired and aligned with the latter’s hardline ideology to establish Islamic Sharia law in Pakistan based on their own interpretation. Throughout the years, this deeply-rooted relationship became more dynamic and complex as both groups strengthened operational, political, tribal, and personal alignments.
Sharp uptick in TTP attacks
Following its establishment in 2007, the TTP wreaked havoc in Pakistan, seizing control of several tribal areas adjacent to Afghanistan and killing security forces, civilians, and even foreigners. The group along with Al-Qaeeda and other militant groups, according to South Asian Terrorism Portal, has killed more than 80,000 Pakistanis and inflicted economic losses of more than USD150 billion over nearly two decades. The violence culminated in a heinous attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, claiming some 150 lives, mostly children.
In the aftermath of the attack, the Pakistani military launched country-wide military operations to crackdown TTP and other terrorist groups and largely succeeded to contain the TTP threat. TTP was further degraded considerably throughout much of the last decade due to the losses from these military operations, its notorious profile of mass civilian killings, and splintering and defections to Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), among others.
But the group resurged in later years, particularly after the US-Taliban so-called peace agreement in Doha in early 2020 and since then the group has intensified its attacks on Pakistani security personnel, and successfully repositioned itself to negotiate with the Pakistani state from a position of strength, much like what the Taliban did in negotiations with the US.
Particularly since 2021, TTP has unleashed a spate of lethal attacks in Pakistan, and the alarming trend is on the rise.
The Annual Security Report (2022) by the Islamabad-based think tank Center of Research and Security Studies (CRSS) shows that 506 terror attacks were carried out in the country in 2022, a 15 percent increase in violence since 2021. However, other data from the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies reveal a wider margin, 250 attacks between August 15, 2021, and August 15, 2022.
The regions with Afghan-border lines, where many TTP and other terrorist groups have strongholds, were particularly vulnerable. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was hit the most where fatalities were recorded by 108%, followed by FATA and Balochistan. The annual dead and injured were nearly 2,000 people, including security personnel.
The CRSS report suggests that 2023 could likely be deadlier as far as the TTP enjoys a safe haven in Afghanistan.
Given the sharp uptick in TTP violence, Pakistan is now planning to launch a new all-out comprehensive counter-terrorism operation against TTP and other terrorist groups in the country.
Nevertheless, given its record of such military operations, Pakistan may contain TTP’s threat for some time, but unlikely eradicate the TTP, especially when the country is going through a full-blown economic crisis and political turmoil that is raging between the establishment and the former prime minister Imran Khan.
How has TTP resurged?
Since the Taliban seizure of Afghanistan, the TTP has strengthened its base in Afghanistan to attack Pakistan. The group has since reemerged with unprecedented scale and its threat remains imminent.
A recent report by Combating Terrorism Center highlights four key dynamics for the TTP resurgence. First and foremost, the group has undergone several mergers by integrating other anti-state militant groups since July 2020 when a Taliban comeback was somehow predicted. Since August 2021, at least 21 smaller groups, including four Baloch militant ones, joined the TTP, 12 more in 2022, and another eight in the first quarter of 2023, bringing experienced fighters into TTT ranks and bolstering its organizational foothold in strategically important regions. The coming transition of the Taliban from an insurgency into governance and the unprecedented reforms of the TTP leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud were crucial and acted as a spur to the merger because the US and NATO forces withdrawal from Afghanistan meant that the Pakistani militants had no longer a raison d’être to fight against the Western forces in the country and integration in the fledgling Taliban government structure was not easy.
In addition, TTP, inspired by the Taliban, has adopted a more centralized organizational structure by shifting its conventional umbrella structure, where local commanders had substantial autonomy, into a centralized one, where a leadership council is the ultimate decision maker. This has provided the TTP leadership, who makes decisions in consultation with its emir, with unprecedented power. Although this arrangement is new, it includes shadow provinces and a centralized organizational structure for appointing officials, allowing the group to recently appoint seven ministers and increase its officials to 139 in 2023, compared to 34 in 2022.
Growing operational activities is another development in the TTP resurgence, particularly when hundreds of its operatives, including the group’s deputy leader, Mawlawi Faqir Mohammad, were freed from prisons when the Taliban swept across Kabul. Moreover, the group has relocated some 6,000 fighters from Afghanistan to Pakistan since its fighters no longer need to fight against international troops and has obtained more sophisticated weapons, looted from abandoned US military bases, or given to them as a share in the spoils of war. These have enabled the group to increase its attacks rapidly and expand its targets from the tribal regions to the major Pakistani cities. Strategically more focused on targeting the Pakistani security forces, TTP-claimed attacks have more than tripled between 2020 and 2022.
Finally, TTP has advanced and sophisticated its propaganda machine, particularly its leading Umar Media, to further the group’s ideology and anti-state war narrative. To attract wider support over grievances across social groups, Umar Media has largely escalated its production and improved content quality, producing audio, video, and text propaganda materials in more than six languages, including English, Pashtu, Urdu, Balochi, Farsi, and Arabic. While the primary target audience of the group’s propaganda remains Pashtuns and Balochs in the tribal belt, hardliners and sympathizers from Islamist groups, and people deeply frustrated with the military and government, this diversification could allow for further exploitation of people across different communities in Pakistan and other extremists beyond, especially in Afghanistan, Central Asian and Arab states. This could prove effective given the recent anti-state militant mergers with the TTP to expand its reach.
Islamabad’s wide celebration of Taliban victory was soon outlived by the spillover effects of the Taliban take over. The events in the last two years have not only shown an unexpected souring relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban over border tensions, Pakistan’s airstrikes in Afghanistan on TTP hideouts, and the Taliban’s reluctance to give in TTP sanctuaries, but it has also manifested in a resurgence in TTP-claimed terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.
A strengthened and emboldened TTP continues to build widespread local support for its war against the Pakistani state through mergers with anti-state militant groups, a centralized organizational structure, advances in propaganda, and increase and intensify its attacks in and from tribal areas to larger Pakistani cities.
The security situation in Pakistan will likely deteriorate in the coming months adding to its current internal crises, including a sharp economic downturn, political instability, and the devastating effects of massive flooding last year.
This will also provide TTP with an added impetus to exploit domestic crises and grievances to mobilize more support for the group and legitimize its fighting against the Pakistani state, particularly security forces. And the shaky and uncertain relationship with the Taliban will make the situation substantially more perilous for Pakistan.
Thus, these circumstances and an unlikelihood of Pakistan’s change in mindset and behavior will curtail any chances and hope of lasting peace in the country in the foreseeable future.
Maisam Iltaf is a staff writer at KabulNow