Dr. Zahid Shahab Ahmed, a research fellow focused on extremism in South Asia at the Alfred Deakin Institute
The Taliban’s August 2021 takeover of Afghanistan subsequently reduced India’s influence in the country which, initially, was a positive development for Pakistan. However, in the year that has passed, Pakistan has witnessed a significant spike in terrorism — particularly the resurgence of the prominent anti-Pakistan terrorist group, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Considering TTP’s links with the Afghan Taliban and the presence of thousands of its members in Afghanistan, this article focuses on how Islamabad has engaged with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan 2.0 to address its terrorism problem.
As a result of the peace deal between the US and the Afghan Taliban, international troops began their withdrawal during the first half of 2021. This happened without a peace settlement between the Taliban and the Ashraf Ghani administration. Hence, while international troops were withdrawing, the Taliban gradually began capturing Afghan territories and eventually took control of the country without any major resistance apart from Panjshir.
While Pakistan received global condemnation for helping the Taliban return to power, Islamabad had no choice but to continue to engage with the Afghan Taliban 2.0. Concerned over the growing humanitarian crisis which has caused a spill-over into Pakistan, Islamabad has been lobbying regionally and globally for more humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Many countries have responded positively to the appeal including India and China. Islamabad, in fact, allowed Indian aid to travel through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
There have also been challenges on the diplomatic front. While Pakistan has kept its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, it has decided against officially recognizing the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s cooperation with the Afghan Taliban has left it open to criticism, although other countries are also engaging with the Taliban — particularly China.
Even though the Taliban are viewed as a friendly government in Pakistan, there is no denying the fact that they serve Afghanistan’s national interests, and anti-Pakistan sentiment exists within their ranks. The Afghan Taliban oppose the Durand Line demarcation and, therefore, have resisted the fencing of its border with Pakistan. There was an incident in which a Taliban official took the Pakistani flag off a truck carrying humanitarian aid from Pakistan. This demonstrates that the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan is not trouble-free, but the latter has to engage with the former to address its growing terrorism problem.
Taliban Links to TTP
It is against this backdrop that Pakistan’s security problems have increased since the Afghan Taliban’s takeover. Pakistan’s success against terrorism has not come easy. While Islamabad has seen a significant decline in terrorism in the past decade, the Taliban takeover next door is now threatening these gains. The Taliban maintain a relationship with TTP. Also, there are risks linked to the operations of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) inside Pakistan. Since its establishment in 2007, TTP has been engaged in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. As a result of Pakistani army operations, more than 6,000 TTP terrorists took refuge in Afghanistan. TTP’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban is evident as the latter released many TTP prisoners from Afghan jails during their takeover of Afghanistan.
Pakistan has employed a variety of tactics to combat terrorism and violent extremism since 2001. The core causes of terrorism — such as radicalization and extremism — have not been adequately addressed by Pakistan despite its ability to minimize the impact of numerous terrorist organizations such as TTP. There are worries in Pakistan that the Taliban’s win in Afghanistan may lead Pakistani Islamists to call for the complete application of sharia law. The Taliban takeover, according to author and political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, “would embolden all extremist-religious factions in Pakistan.” In fact, Islamists in Pakistan have already voiced their excitement over the Taliban’s triumph and sent them congratulatory messages.
TTP activity in Pakistan — in the form of fundraising, recruiting and attacks — has grown since August 2021. The group’s operations are no longer restricted to the ex-FATA. It has also been extortionately collecting money in Peshawar, the capital of KP. TTP has opposed both the fencing of the Durand Line and the union of FATA and KP. The terrorist organization has expanded its attacks against a variety of targets in Pakistan but, since August 2021, other organizations, including the ISKP, have also increased their activity. This pattern is also demonstrated by the monthly data on terrorist occurrences; see table 1 that shows data from South Asia Terrorism Portal.
The Pakistani government’s initial response — notwithstanding TTP’s attacks — was to negotiate a political settlement with the group. The Taliban, in particular Siraj Haqqani — who is the group’s first deputy leader since 2016 — helped to broker these talks. As the talks went on, TTP abandoned its earlier demand that the government rescind its decision to allow the merger of ex-FATA and KP. TTP declared a truce in November 2021 after the Pakistani government agreed to release a batch of TTP prisoners. Pakistan released 80 TTP detainees in December 2021, and there was a proposal to free 46 more. However, TTP put the truce on hold in December 2021, accusing the government of failing to release 102 TTP captives by the end of November 2021. Additionally, TTP accused the government of breaking the ceasefire deal by conducting security operations against the organization in Lakki Marwat, Swat, Bajaur, Dir, and Swabi. This may be due to the government’s inability to decide whether to grant TTP amnesty.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration wished to resume talks with the TTP. By the time the second round of discussions began in February 2022, the government had already freed at least 100 TTP detainees. The fact that Pakistani President Arif Alvi has not yet issued the presidential pardon for TTP remains a significant roadblock. This was not a top priority for the Imran Khan administration from March to April 2022 since it was facing a serious obstacle in the form of an opposition party vote of no confidence against the prime minister. As a result, no progress was made towards reaching a peace accord with TTP, and it was unclear how the group would respond to this while the country was experiencing political challenges.
It is now evident that TTP is not committed to the ceasefire agreement. In September 2022, TTP launched an attack in Swat killing five people, including a prominent anti-Taliban leader and a member of a peace committee, Idrees Khan. Following this aggression, there is little hope of these negotiations resuming any time soon.
Several factors have led to the failure of Pakistan’s negotiations with TTP, but a key factor is the current regime in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban facilitated these talks, but without any clear indication of holding TTP accountable if they do not respect the ceasefire. Also, it remains unlikely that they will hold them accountable given their relationship with TTP. It appears that Pakistan has lost its leverage regarding influencing the Afghan Taliban as was the case during the last two decades when most of the Afghan Taliban leadership and their families were residing in Pakistan.
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