Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, where he focuses on religious extremism and militancy in South Asia. He is on Twitter: @basitresearcher.
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last August, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s attacks against Pakistan have increased dramatically. TTP is a conglomerate of anti-Pakistan jihadist groups operating in and out of Afghanistan. Contrary to the (mis)perceptions that the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan constituted a strategic victory for Pakistan, the post-US Afghanistan is turning out to be a bigger security challenge for Islamabad.
On February 16, Pakistan urged the United Nations to help stop (terrorist) attacks from Afghanistan. Similarly, on February 21, Pakistan’s envoy to Afghanistan Mansoor Ahmed Khan expressed concern over the presence of foreign terrorist groups in the country. The dispute over TTP and the Taliban’s opposition to the Pak-Afghan border fencing, also known as the Durand Line, has resulted in tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Under the Taliban regime, TTP enjoys greater freedom of operation to plot and carry out attacks against Pakistan. The videos of TTP’s nighttime sniper shooting against Pakistani troops circulating on social media also point to its improved operational capabilities. Not only is TTP using M16 machine guns and M4 assault rifles fitted with night vision telescopes, but they are also filming the video footage with infra-red cameras. Most likely, TTP is using the weapons leftover by the US in Afghanistan. The absence of US drone strikes has allowed the further augmentation of TTP’s organizational strength.
Despite Pakistan’s protests and demands that the Taliban curtail TTP’s operations, the Taliban have been non-committal, terming it Pakistan’s internal matter. The Taliban’s assurances to Islamabad have been somewhat superfluous and generic, such as not allowing the Afghan soil to be used against any other country for terrorism. Rather than acting against TTP, the Taliban’s Haqqani Network is trying to broker a peace deal between the TTP and Pakistan. Last November, both sides reached a one-month ceasefire to pave the way for a broader peace deal. However, due to mutual lack of trust, hostility and allegations of ceasefire violations, TTP did not extend the truce and resumed its attacks against Pakistan. Presently, another attempt is underway to jumpstart the peace talks. Pakistan has released around forty-six TTP militants as a concession, while the terror group has reduced its attacks in return.
The Taliban share deep-rooted ethnic, ideological, and political links with TTP, and they will never abandon it for Pakistan. After 9/11, TTP provided shelter to the fleeing Taliban commanders and fighters in the ex-FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) region, now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and helped revive their insurgency in Afghanistan. TTP was the first jihadist group to congratulate the Taliban on their victory last August and renewed its oath of allegiance. Both the Taliban and TTP belong to the Deobandi denomination, a sub-sect of the Sunni-Hanafi jurisprudential school.
Likewise, both are ethnic Pashtun groups, notwithstanding the presence of some non-Pashtun ethnicities among their ranks, and oppose recognizing, let alone enforcing, the Pak-Afghan border. Opposition to the Pak-Afghan border is the mainstay of Pashtun nationalism and any group claiming to be a Pashtun nationalist cannot condone its fencing. The Taliban regime does not recognize the Durand Line as an internationally recognized border for the same reason. TTP provides the Taliban, which are now positioning themselves to be the so-called Pashtun nationalists, to win sympathies of Afghanistan’s Pashtun community, with tremendous leverage against Pakistan. The Taliban would not like to lose this leverage.
After suffering several setbacks between 2014-2019, due to effective counterterrorism operations by the Pakistan Army such as Zarb-e-Azb (swift and cutting strike) and Radd-ul-Fasad (elimination of discord), resulting in leadership disputes and factionalization, TTP started reviving under its current leader Nur Wali Mehsud in 2020. Nur Wali introduced a code of conduct within TTP to discipline its cadres and reached out to splinter faction to remerge. As a result, more than eleven militant factions have renewed their oath of allegiance to Nur Wali, including Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Hizb-ul-Ahrar. According to the United Nations Security Council report, Al-Qaeda facilitated these mergers.
These reunifications were part of the TTP strategy to prepare for life after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In 2007, when TTP was created, the US invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s counterterrorism cooperation, such as logistical support, intelligence cooperation and military bases, was the primary justification for the terror group’s creation. The US withdrawal ended its intervention in Afghanistan and counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan as well. So, TTP needed organizational coherence and a new ideological narrative to continue its jihadist militarism.
TTP’s Pakistan-focused and Pashtun-centric Ideological Narrative
The revived and reincarnated TTP has fine-tuned its ideological narrative to justify its violent attacks against Pakistan after the US withdrawal. Part of these adjustments includes a selective targeting strategy that has shifted focus from indiscriminate to more discriminate violence, only targeting Pakistani security personnel. Likewise, TTP’s rhetoric has become Pakistan-focused and Pashtun-centric to show itself as a local militant group.
The Taliban’s Afghan-centric strategy influenced TTP’s localization, especially after it seemed to earn them a victory in Afghanistan. TTP’s effort to frame its militant struggle in local tones became increasingly clear following a terrorist attack on the Dasu Hydropower project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kohistan district last August, resulting in the killings of nine Chinese workers. TTP denied its involvement in the attack and clarified to China that the terror group’s struggle was against Pakistan for the implementation of a Shariah system in the country, not Beijing.
Similarly, a careful analysis of TTP’s recent statements indicates the use of sharp ethnic markers while justifying its attacks. For instance, in his July 2021 interview with CNN, Nur Wali framed TTP’s struggle in ethno-separatist terms by vowing to create a separate Pashtun homeland where a Taliban-style Shariah system would be implemented. TTP conveniently switches between Islamism and Pashtun nationalism to justify its operations.
The central plank of TTP messaging is its opposition to the Pak-Afghan border fencing. Like other Pashtun nationalists, TTP considers the Durand Line an illegitimate British colonial imposition that divided the Pashtun community. TTP also opposes the merger of the ex-FATA region with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the presence of the Pakistani troops in the area. Reversal of the ex-FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and withdrawal of the Pakistani forces from the region have been added to abolishing the Durand Line as goals of TTP’s localized militarism. Backing this narrative up with kinetic action, the group has carried out several attacks on the Pakistan security personnel stationed at the Pak-Afghan border.
Distancing from Al-Qaeda and Renouncing ISK
Along with localizing its ideological narrative, TTP has also started distancing itself from global jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK). While al-Qaeda and TTP’s ties are longstanding and well-documented, ISK branched out of TTP in January 2015. Two factions of TTP from Orakzai and Bajaur tribal districts defected to the Islamic State and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In July 2020, TTP strongly rebuked ISK, while denouncing any links with the terror following some reports which suggested that, after the US exit from Afghanistan, TTP militants could join ISK. TTP termed ISK’s claims to a Caliphate as bogus, since it did not meet the criterion laid out in Islam.
Similarly, in a February 2021 statement, TTP denied any links with al-Qaeda, while reiterating its localized struggle focused on Pakistan. TTP strongly refuted the United Nations Security Council report, which pointed out al-Qaeda’s mediating role in TTP’s reunification. TTP maintained that mergers were purely the group’s internal matter, and no outsider was involved in the process. TTP vehemently denied links with al-Qaeda to avoid being targeted in the potential US Over the Horizon Counter-Terrorism (OTH-CT) strikes in the future. It bears mention that the US is still looking for a military base in the region to execute its OTH-CT operations in Afghanistan effectively.
In short, TTP’s efforts to rebrand itself as a local group while denying links with al-Qaeda and ISK are part of its survival strategy. It seems TTP is following the Taliban’s playbook: the Taliban has also publicly downplayed its ties with al-Qaeda.
TTP poses a long-term threat to Pakistan’s internal security from its Afghan hideouts. The group has regained the capability to carry out high-profile attacks in Pakistan. Pakistan’s effort to cut a peace deal with TTP or convince the Taliban to take action against the latter will be vain. Pakistan will have to reevaluate its current Afghan policy if it wants a meaningful solution to its terrorism woes. As long as there is an environment conducive for the growth of terrorism in the region, terrorism will survive and continue to pose a threat in one form or the other. One terrorist group cannot be eliminated or weakened in isolation from the other.
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