By Ambreen Agha
On October 2, 2011, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that his administration was ready to hold negotiations with all militant groups, including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, TTP’s ‘Deputy Commander’ and ‘Commander-in-Chief’ for its Bajaur Chapter in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), spoke to the media on phone on October 3, 2011, declaring, “TTP welcomes the Prime Minister’s offer.” Before the bells could peal out for an imminent ‘peace’, unsurprisingly, the TTP ‘commander’ set out two unattainable preconditions for talks: One, the Government should reconsider its relationship with the United States (US); and, two, enforce Islamic Shari’ah (law) in the country.
The offer of ‘peace talks’ comes at the time when Islamabad’s operations in the tribal region have had little impact on TTP’s jihadist operational capabilities, and this is reflected in the confidence that underpins Faqir Muhammad’s response to the Prime Minister. The organisational strength and systemic growth of TTP’s leadership has, both qualitatively and quantitatively, taken a quantum leap in over the past years.
According to the SATP data, Pakistan witnessed 6,769 fatalities [including 3,135 civilians, 1,211 Security Forces (SF) personnel and 2,423 terrorists] between 2003 and 2007. After the formation of TTP on December 14, 2007, however, the fatalities recorded a steep rise, totalling as many as 30,843 in this latter phase (SATP data till October 9, 2011). Crucially, the number of suicide attacks also increased dramatically. 75 suicide attacks had been recorded between 2002 and 2007, killing 1,183 persons; the number of suicide attacks witnessed since January 2008 stands at 219, with at least 3,600 persons killed.
Some of the largest attacks that Pakistan has witnessed since the formation of TTP, for which the outfit has either claimed responsibility or has been accused, include:
May 13, 2011: Two suicide bombers attacked Frontier Constabulary trainees in the Shabqadar tehsil (revenue unit) of Charsadda District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing 73 personnel and 17 civilians, and injuring another 140.
May 28, 2010: At least 95 worshippers were killed and 92 injured as seven assailants, including three suicide bombers, attacked Ahmadi mosques in the Model Town and Garhi Shahu areas of Lahore in Punjab.
October 10, 2008: At least 85 persons were killed and another 200 wounded, when a suicide bomber in an explosives-laden vehicle attacked an anti-TTP jirga of the Ali Khel tribe in the Khadezai area of the Upper Orakzai Agency in FATA.
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December 27, 2007: 31 people were killed and over 100 others wounded when a suicide attacker riding on a motorbike blew himself up after firing at former Premier Benazir Bhutto who was waving to her supporters from her vehicle’s sun roof in Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi. Benazir was killed in the attack. After the May 13, 2011, attack the TTP spokesman Ehsaullah Ehsan declared, “Pakistan will be the prime target followed by United States (US). The US had been on a man-hunt for Osama and now Pakistani rulers are on our hit-list as we also killed Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack.”
Benazir Bhutto’s assassination was the first major attack by the TTP after its formation. The era of the suicide bomb has seen military installations and religious gatherings of rival denominations as its primary targets. Suicide bombings and the recruitment of young children in TTP suicide squads heralded a new phase of terrorism in Pakistan.
The TTP was established on a powerful base of Islamist extremist organisations that existed and pursued a jihadist agenda in Pakistan even prior to its creation in December 2007. The organisation only formalized and further radicalized the structure of what were, previously, loosely knit Pakistani jihadist forces affiliated with the Taliban since the 1980’s. The cadre of the Pakistani Taliban movement (as distinct from the Afghan Taliban) came from the rank and file of mainstream Islamist political parties, whose alliance held power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from 2002 to 2007. It was during General Pervez Musharraf’s Presidency that an alliance of religious parties won the Provincial elections of 2002 (as well as significant numbers in the Parliament) to rule North Western Pakistan. The two most powerful and orthodox religious political parties that comprised the alliance were Jama’at-e-Islami (JeI) and Jama’at Ulema-e-Islam (JuI). Both these mainstream political parties have played an active role in Pakistan’s jihadist politics.
The JuI, in particular, experienced a shift towards increasing radicalization during the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The JuI actively participated in the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, when madrassas established by this ‘Deobandi’ organisation provided holy warriors against the Soviets. Through the 1990s the JuI remained deeply involved with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Indeed, thousands of Afghan and Pakistani students from the madrasa run by JuI formed the nucleus of the Taliban militia. The mushrooming of thousands of Deobandi madrassas along the border with Afghanistan, deeply mobilized other religiously motivated political parties in Pakistan, producing a new breed of radical Islamists who, over the years, spilled across into Pakistan. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996 also encouraged the formation of Pakistani militant groups such as Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Most of the top militant leaders in Pakistan’s tribal region, who later formed the TTP, were initially associated with the JuI or groups raised out of JuI madrassas. Terrorist commanders and leaders like Baitullah Mehsud, Mufti Wali-ur-Rehman, Maulana Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur have all emerged from the ranks of the JuI. Under military rulers like Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan moved further towards becoming an ideological Islamist state, enormously emboldening the clergy. Significantly, the JeI and other Islamists were co-opted by Zia’s Government, serving in his martial law cabinet. The edifice of a military-mullah combine was created, and the Islamists penetrated deep into state institutions.
It was the Lal Masjid [Red Mosque] imbroglio in Islamabad in 2007 that pushed the Islamists across the Rubicon, turning them against their erstwhile state sponsors. Asma Jehangir, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), commenting on the high level independent inquiry into the Lal Masjid Operation, observed:
…the situation in the Lal Masjid did not crop up overnight. The significant build up of arms and the training to the students had continued for years with the help and connivance of the Pakistan authorities. The authorities didn’t learn about the presence of alleged militants within the Lal Masjid just hours before the operation. The whereabouts of these individuals should not have been unknown to the vast intelligence network based in Islamabad… Even now other seminaries exist, where militants are trained and arsenals of arms stocked. The existence and location of these seminaries are well known to authorities. Indeed, the violent events seen at the Lal Masjid are an outcome of the collusion between the military and the militants backed by the clergy that has continued for decades.
Shuja Nawaz also confirms, in Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within, that the Lal Masjid radicals, prior to their declaration of a parallel judicial system to enforce Islamic laws in Islamabad, were trained and supported by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
There is a clear, and now widely acknowledged, history of collusion between a range of Islamist terrorist formations and the Army and intelligence, as well as the political, establishment in Pakistan. This has generated a ‘blowback’, forcing the country’s SFs to struggle to contain ‘renegade’ groups that have escaped or rebelled against military-intelligence control. It is, indeed, the extremist-terrorist spaces created for state supported groups that have allowed anti-state groups to flourish as well. All these groups have been mobilized on a pan-Islamist ideology of jihad, which makes clear distinctions between cadres of different groups impossible.
TTP is currently led by Hakimullah Mehsud, who took over the reins of the movement after the death of his brother and the TTP founder, Baitullah Mehsud, in a US missile strike on August 5, 2009. The Mehsud brothers belonged to the Mehsud tribe of the South Waziristan Agency in FATA. Projecting the fanatical Talibanised version of Islam, Baitullah Mehsud had declared in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in October 2007, “Only jihad can bring peace to the world.” The activities of the Talibanised extremists within Pakistan were no secret and found visible expression in pamphlets and audio-video recordings circulated across the country, slogans on walls and open public mobilization. Thus, Shahid Nadeem wrote in Daily Times on August 7, 2002,
Wall chalking after wall chalking advertised jihadi outfits and announced recruitment for jihadi fighters. Just a few kilometres from the Havelian Cantonment, there are slogans such as ‘jihad is the shortest route to Paradise’ and ‘contact us for commando jihadi training’. Walls between Havelian in Abbottabad to Haripur District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are full of jihadi slogans and adverts.
Headquartered in the South Waziristan Agency of FATA, TTP has spread its networks into all of Pakistan’s four provinces, establishing various ‘Chapters’ and groups led by local ‘commanders’ with common organisational goals. The TTP has also made its presence felt in neighbouring Afghanistan in recent times.
There is an overlap of membership between TTP and other sectarian terrorist outfits that operate across the country, each pursuing its own internal and external agendas. On November 23, 2008, the then TTP spokesman, Mullah Omer, had said, “The Taliban are present in Karachi and have links with the LeJ, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and other banned religious organisations.” Apart from these sectarian groups, there are others with which the TTP has established linkages, primarily including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), HuM and Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI). Media reports on January 5, 2011, indicated that five terrorist groups had joined the TTP and were working under its umbrella TTP. With common aims and enemies, LeJ, SSP, JeM, HuM and Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA) had ‘merged’ with TTP. TTP spokesman Azam Tariq declared, “We have not forced anyone to join TTP, and the leaders and activists of the banned religious organisations have united themselves under the umbrella of the TTP on their own choice.”
The US Department of State had put the TTP on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations on September 1, 2010. On January 18, 2011, Britain moved to ban the TTP, making it illegal to belong to or raise funds for the organisation in Britain. Subsequently, on July 5, 2011, Canada designated the TTP as a terrorist organisation. Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, noted that putting TTP on the terrorism blacklist was “an essential part of our efforts to combat terrorism and keep our communities safe.” On July 29, 2011, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) put the TTP on its international anti-terrorism sanctions list in a move highlighting the growing threat from the outfit.
The Pakistani military has launched a succession of offensives against the TTP, but the movement continues to thrive. From time to time, different ‘chapters’ of the organisation have entered into deals with Islamabad, to secure transient relief and consolidate their operations further. The TTP has now consolidated its presence and influence across the tribal areas, particularly in the Agencies of North and South Waziristan. Indeed, in September 2006, in an attempt to end the violence raging since 2004 between the ‘Pakistani Taliban’ and the Pakistan Armed Forces, in a negotiated settlement, the Pakistan Government recognised the ‘Islamic Emirate of Waziristan’, comprising of Waziristani chieftains with close ties to the Taliban, as the de facto SF for Waziristan. This peace Agreement finally broke in August 2007 after the Lal Masjid siege. A three day military operation, from October 8, 2007 to October 10, 2007, was launched in the Mir Ali Town of North Waziristan Agency in which at least 150 militants were killed. Clashes broke out after militants set off Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and conducted ambushes on the SFs on October 7, 2007. Though there have been other military operations by the Pakistan Armed Forces against Taliban militants in FATA, Pakistan continues to live on a sword’s edge in the region.
On January 28, 2008, there were reports of clandestine talks between the Government and the TTP. Militant ‘commander’ Maulana Faqir Muhammad was identified as the ‘political face’ of the TTP for the purpose of holding talks with the Government. Subsequently, on February 24, 2008, after Provincial elections had installed a new Government, the TTP said that they were ready for talks, but only if the new Provincial regime rejected Musharraf’s “war on terror” in the country’s tribal belt. On May 13, 2008, the KP Government and the TTP agreed to the implementation of Shari’ah Nizam-e-Adl Regulations, 1999, in the Malakand Division within one month. The TTP’s demand for the implementation of Shari’ah has been settled, the KP unit President of the ruling Awami National Party, Afrasiab Khattak, informed the media, after a second round of talks with TTP representatives from Swat. However, the Pakistan Government, on June 9, 2008, scrapped the peace deal with the TTP after militants reneged on their promise to stop violence.
The present peace deal offered by the Prime Minister to the TTP and other terrorist groupings within Pakistan is bound to produce another fiasco. It comes at a time of escalating terrorist violence, widening instability across the AfPak region, growing Pakistani state adventurism, and the declining coherence of state institutions within the country. Islamabad has failed to learn any lessons from past failures, and has repeatedly sought accommodation with fanatical, religiously intolerant, misogynist and violent groupings, even as radical Islamist mobilisation remains at the core of all domestic politics and the Army’s model of crisis management. The Prime Minister’s blandishments will do little to contain the TTP and other extremist factions within the country, or to stall Pakistan’s hurtling descent into chaos.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management