WASHINGTON: Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers are unlikely to discontinue supporting militants in Pakistan as they feel that economic troubles prevent Islamabad from launching a major operation against the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), according to a new report from a leading US think tank.

“Amid Pakistan’s economic crisis and the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban have reemerged as an increasingly potent threat,” warned the report, released in Washington on Tuesday by the US Institute of Peace (USIP).

Referring to Kabul’s recent criticism of Islamabad’s policies, the report argued that “this undiplomatic rhetoric underscores the Taliban’s determination to continue supporting the TTP, even in the face of intensified pressure from Pakistan”.

USIP argued that the Taliban’s response to being confronted about their support for the TTP “has been to level counter-accusations — which does not signal an impending shift away from that support”.

USIP report fears Pakistan’s deteriorating economy will limit its ability to act against terrorists

Such rhetorical signals are matched by anecdotal reports from UN officials and other observers — quoted in the USIP report — of TTP individuals moving freely and conducting business in Afghan cities.

Interlocutors with access to Kandahar report that the Taliban emir and his close advisers were “unlikely to waiver in supporting the TTP on ideological grounds,” the USIP report noted.

According to this report, another key factor shaping the Pakistani response is the country’s deteriorating economy, which is on the brink of a default. “That limits Pakistan’s military options. Pakistan can carry out raids and undertake defensive actions inside the country, but it doesn’t have the resources for a sustained high-intensity campaign,” USIP warned.

The report noted that “Pakistan has flirted with the idea of cross-border airstrikes again,” which it last conducted in April 2022 and it also faced “growing pressure for action,” but seemed reluctant to act.

The pressure came from political groups in Pakistan who were “framing the terrorism resurgence as a conspiracy by the military to block former prime minister Imran Khan’s return to power and to get American aid,” the report added.

But the report argued that economic pressures and the risk of a conflict spiral, especially amid reports of Taliban fighters joining the TTP, “may induce doubts in Pakistan about such a cross-border operation”.

The TTP’s escalating campaign of violence “is a function of its growing political and material strength — reflected in its political cohesion, expanding cadre of trained fighters, suicide bombers, weapons, and equipment,” the report added.

“The Afghan Taliban remain very supportive of the TTP and are providing the group with a permissive safe haven,” the report claimed. It noted that the TTP also had a lot of popular support in Afghanistan, “where both Taliban and non-Taliban constituencies get behind the TTP due to a fervent dislike for Pakistan”.

The USIP reported that some Taliban fighters were also joining the TTP, and some recent bombers, who carried out attacks inside Pakistan, were also Afghan.

The report also pointed out that a handful of Taliban leaders, in particular Taliban Interior Minister Siraj Haqqani, had restrained the TTP on Pakistani requests on occasion. “Yet the balance of opinion within the Taliban is strongly in favour of the TTP and its campaign. In particular, Taliban Amir Hibatullah Akhundzada agrees with the TTP that Pakistani system is un-Islamic,” the report concluded.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2023

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