It is commonly believed in Pakistan that its existence is under threat from its eastern neighbor India with which it has an unending dispute over Kashmir. But the threat actually comes from the outlawed Teheeik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an offshoot and ally the Afghan Taliban that now rules Pakistan’s Western neighbor, Afghanistan.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s commitment to forcing sharia on Pakistan and its belief in violence should worry Islamabad, particularly in the context of the on-going Pakistan-Afghanistan standoff.
In November, the TTP had withdrawn from its June 2022 ceasefire agreement with the Pakistan government, and the war against the Pakistani security forces was resumed. On November 18, the TTP stormed the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) office at Bannu in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa Province, held the police interrogators of its cadres hostage, and demanded safe evacuation to Afghanistan.
This set off alarm bells in Washington too, where the State Department Spokesman, Ned Price, said that the US will “unconditionally” support Pakistan in its fight against terrorism.
The TTP is hell-bent on imposing Islamic Sharia law on Pakistan and has chosen to do this through violence in the same way as the Afghan Taliban has done in Afghanistan. But the TTP’s goal and its violent methods run counter to Pakistan’s bid to be a modern State. The laws of the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan” are only partially Islamic and constitutionally, there is no room for violence in settling issues.
The other contradiction between the Pakistani State and the TTP is that, unlike other terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, the TTP does not have the blessings of the Pakistani State. It is not a handmaiden of the State, fulfilling its agenda vis-à-vis India. It is pursuing its goals independently. The TTP is not even tied to the apron strings of the Afghan Taliban. The latter poses yet another problem – there are no effective intermediaries to help Pakistan deal with the TTP.
String of Violent Incidents
The incident at Bannu was but a part of a string of violent incidents in Pakistan perpetrated by terrorists. Pakistan had witnessed a 51% rise in terrorist attacks in one year since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, the Dawn reported, quoting the Islamabad-based think tank, Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies.
The spike in terror incidents saw the killing of almost 500 people between August 15, 2021 and August 14, 2022, the report said.
The terror groups involved had bases and ideological support in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The groups based in Afghanistan included the Al-Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). The think tank’s study found that after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, cross border movement of militants had increased with groups like TTP and IS-K intensifying attacks in Pakistan, particularly in the border areas.
The Afghan Taliban government is up against only one of the above groups, namely, the IS-K. This is because the IS-K actively challenges the Taliban. But the TTP has the full support of the Afghan Taliban organization with the blessings of the government in Kabul.
The return of TTP militants from Afghanistan to Pakistan had caused a “wave of fear and panic among residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” the study says, quoting UN Security Council data. The report points out that in April 2022, the TTP and its affiliates carried out 20 terrorist attacks in Pakistan including some from across the border. In one of these attacks in North Waziristan, seven army soldiers were killed.
Nature of TTP
The nature of the TTP is delineated by Georgetown University’s Abdul Sayed and Clemson University’s Amira Jadoon in their August 16, 2022 paper: Understanding Tehrik-e- Taliban Pakistan’s Unrelenting Posture.
In June 2022, the Pakistan government and the TTP entered into a ceasefire agreement, despite lack of support from the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban remained neutral for two reasons: (1) it had its own problems with Islamabad over the disputed border, the Durand Line; (2) it was preoccupied with the fight against the IS-K within Afghanistan.
At any rate, the Afghan Taliban, being now in power, did not want to be under the tutelage of Pakistan though Pakistan had helped it come to power by sheltering its cadres for years and interceding on its behalf with the US. Opinion on Pakistan among the Afghan Jihadis was also tainted by Islamabad’s support for the US War on Terror, which resulted in massive killings.
The Afghan Taliban’s standoffishness and reservaitons about Pakistan encouraged the TTP to take a tough line vis-à-vis Pakistan and eventually break the ceasefire in November. Increasing Pakistani military action against the various Mujahideen groups in Pakistan was cited as the reason for breaking the ceasefire.
Researchers Sayed and Jadoon point to yet another reason for discord between the TTP and Pakistan: the TTP’s unwillingness to compromise on its demand of reversing the 2018 merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. The TTP considers a separate FATA as essential for asserting the Pakhtuns’ separate identity. The TTP is the militant voice of the Pakhtuns in Pakistan. But Pakistan’s fear is that if FATA were restored it will eventually be claimed by Afghanistan, because the Afghan Taliban are dominated by Pakhtuns.
The TTP is changing its tactics in Pakistan to suit the political climate and also to get the maximum mileage from the developing environment, Sayed and Jadoon say.
Since Pakistan’s economy is on a downward spiral, there is widespread alienation from the government, the political parties and even the military. Continued military action against militant groups in the tribal areas affect innocent civilians. This is particularly exploited by TTP. The TTP is also exploiting the grievances of ethnic groups, such as the Baloch, though the Baloch liberation movement is secular and not Islamic.
Above all, the TTP is strongly advocating Islamization and the imposition of Sharia in full, which other political groups, including the avowedly Islamic ones, are not pressing for with single-minded devotion. According to Sayed and Jadoon, there is an influential urban intellectual constituency favoring drastic Islamization as the only way to rescue Pakistan from the current political, social and economic morass.
And additionally, Ned Price’s statement on Monday that Washington will “unconditionally” stand by Pakistan in its fight against terrorism will further provoke the TTP to take a hardline.
As of now, the TTP has no operations outside Pakistan. But the globalization of anti-terror operations could provoke the TTP to also go global with the help of Al Qaida and IS-K, both deadly enemies of the US.