By Adnan Shah
After the fall of Kabul in August 2021, Pakistan is confronted with a resurgence in the wave of militancy that is primarily posed by the Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan, better known as the TTP. The group has been injected with a fresh dose of strength, mainly due to the Taliban’s triumphant march on Kabul. The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has paved the way for the human, financial, and materialistic bolster of the TTP, besides expanding its ideological base.
The entrenchment of TTP’s ideology, solidified due to the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, has added to the conundrums of Pakistani policymakers.
In the latest turn of events, the TTP has garnered much attention in a country that is already grappling with the poly-crisis, mainly due to the lethal terrorist attacks against Pakistani apparatus. One of the most heinous attacks that came from the TTP in 2023 was the Peshawar Police Lines suicide attack, which resulted in the carnage of over 100 policemen. Moreover, in September 2023, TTP made its first attempt since 2014 to physically wrest Pakistani territory by making a failed attempt at incursion in the Chitral Valley. Not to mention the death toll that the TTP is inflicting on the security forces of Pakistan with each passing day.
It is often urged that TTP ideological prowess has been its asset for achievements of its nefarious designs against Pakistan. The biggest failure of Pakistan in its war on terrorism has been Pakistan’s inability to counter this very ideological base of the TTP, which was visible soon after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Pakistan, with mediation from the Afghan Taliban, initiated a process of negotiating with an organization that it declares to be a prime perpetrator of the deaths of thousands of its citizens. Resultantly, TTP was lent enough time and space, which it utilized to reorganize itself. The negotiation was an utter failure on the part of Pakistan as the militant outfit was not ready to show any flexibility. Instead, TTP unilaterally withdrew ceasefire in November 2022 and undertook numerous assaults on Pakistani forces. In addition to this, the biggest detriment that Pakistan suffered from the futile exercise of negotiation was the undue recognition that Pakistan granted to a terror outfit by sitting across a table of negotiations with the TTP. The negotiation between Pakistan and the TTP upgraded the status of the TTP from being a militant organization to a political organization.
The process of negotiation between the TTP and Pakistan was deemed to fail as both parties seemed to sit on opposite edges of the sword. Ideologically, TTP believes in a strict interpretation of Islam under the light of Deobandi jurisprudence. TTP does not believe in the concept of state sovereignty as prescribed by the Pakistani constitution, as it believes sovereignty only rests with Allah, nor does it have any regard for democracy because it derives its inspiration from the Afghan Taliban’s totalitarianism.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is a blend of different interpretations of Islam; hence,it cannot surrender to the TTP’s version of Deobandi Islam. The constitution of Pakistan recognizes the sovereignty of the state, while Pakistan also claims to be a democracy, though a dysfunctional one, yet it holds a regular electoral process. Therefore, the ideological distinctions between the TTP and Pakistan only intensify contestation between the two sides, resulting in the loss of material and human life.
Under the command of its present emir, Noor Wali Mehsud, the TTP has emerged as a potent militant force with a defined political ideology, negating any geopolitical objectives. The TTP has repeatedly stated that its ambitions do not extend beyond the frontiers of Pakistan. It is aiming to cease control of the erstwhile Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA) from the Pakistani state. The first, among several objectives, is TTP’s demand from Pakistan to reverse the 25th Amendment, which merged FATA into the north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The second objective of the proscribed entity is to ensure the governance of these regions in accordance with the Nizam-ul-Adal Ordinance, which implies strict interpretation of sharia and was once implemented in the Swat Valley from 2007 to 2010. Eventually, the TTP aims to overthrow the democratic government in Islamabad and replace it with theocracy, with the help of sustained militancy on the similar lines of Afghan insurgency from 2001 to 2021.
In the aftermath of the resurgence of terrorism and deepening political and economic crisis in Pakistan, the TTP has furthered its campaign to gain the maximum attention of the people, already reeling under the weight of a severe economic crisis. The TTP, in its propaganda campaigns, throws heaps of blame on the ‘’western’’ and “infidel” parliamentary system of the democracy for the misery of Pakistani people. It makes emotional appeals and religious anthems in its propaganda videos for the support of the Pakistani population. TTP suggests the establishment of the caliphate on Pakistani soil as the final cure for the treatment of Pakistani socio-political doldrums.
TTP’s vicious cycle of campaigns to cement its ideological fortress can be understood from the recent scandal at Islamia University Bhawalpur. The female students of Islamia University Bahawalpur charged the university administration with sexual exploitation in collusion with some prominent political fishes. As a proactive approach, TTP released several statements in which it expressed contempt against the Pakistani legal system. The TTP declared the absence of disregard for the sharia as a reason behind such ‘’heinous crimes”. The TTP called for the death penalty of the culprits in light of sharia. The outfit stated that such social evils can only be eradicated if its version of sharia law is punitively enforced in Pakistan. The TTP wanted to cash in on the sentiments of the Pakistani population, which has little hope in its criminal justice system.
Yet another feature of the TTP’s ideological theatrics is evident in its confined ambitions for Pakistani territory. The TTP, during the time of the United States (US) presence in Afghanistan, had transnational objectives against the US and its allies. It was legitimate for the TTP to attack western interests within or without Afghanistan. The 2010 Times Square bombing is one such demonstration of the TTP’s international motives. This is no longer the case after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The TTP, in the most possible and vocal terms, has vowed that its mission to establish sharia law is only limited to the hinterlands of Pakistan. The TTP has walked the talk on its vow by refraining from launching any assault against western targets. Meanwhile, within Pakistan, the TTP has established 12 wilayas (provinces) to sustain its operations more effectively against the Pakistani state. The constrained ambitions of the TTP within the borders of Pakistan introduce us to the geopolitical smartness of the TTP, as its leadership is clearly aware of the ramifications of having global ambitions. The TTP’s limited ideological contestation against Pakistan leaves the country isolated in its war against the TTP, as global players do not perceive the TTP as a threat to their interests, unlike ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Thus, the TTP’s ideological maneuvering has left Pakistan alone to battle the TTP.
Further, though the group traces its roots in religious extremism, it has strong reflections of the ethno-nationalist movement. The TTP is primarily composed of recruits from the Pashtun belt of Pakistan. The longstanding grievances of tribal Pashtuns in the form of violation of their constitutional rights, absence of socio-economic development, lack of due political representation, and lack of security have tilted the bulk of the tribal population in favor of the TTP. Reportedly, the strength of the group has surged from 6,000 fighters in 2019 to 25,000 fighters in 2023 due to the reintegration of the dozens of splinters back into the TTP, which also consists of Pashtun fighters. The TTP channels the sentiments of the local population, which ultimately blesses the group with a pipe of recruits extracted from the local population. The religious extremism carrying the badge of ethno-nationalism makes it even harder for Pakistan to fight with.
In the wake of a renewed and powerful wave of terrorism, Pakistan must not only squeeze political, financial, and geographical space on the TTP, but it must also make it harder for the group to gain any legitimacy. The final nail in the coffin of the TTP can only be inflicted if Pakistan, through a whole-of-the-nation approach, outperforms the TTP on the ideological frontier.