By late 2020, as it became apparent that the US was certainly withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, talk around the table of Pakistan’s security establishment and political decision-makers related to the consequences of the withdrawal and its possible aftermath.
For over two decades, Nato members and their partner nations had held down the fort of peace in Afghanistan, with up to 130,000 troops deployed there at the height of the war.
The rampaging Afghan Taliban who would take control of the country in weeks, their relationship with the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the rise of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), and the possible splintering of the TTP and a potential merger with IS-K; these were some of the worst-case scenarios envisioned by Pakistani strategists.
But the common denominator among all analyses was always the TTP.
Back in August 2020, the TTP commenced a process of reorganisation, regrouping and refinancing as it found its potency to be at stake. This was due to an inability to carry out large scale attacks and its shrinking finances, in the wake of the Pakistan Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb to uproot the group from North Waziristan.
The operation fuelled infighting and disintegration within the group, forcing members to run helter-skelter in search of shelter, even to Afghanistan. The relative period of calm since the completion of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the tribal areas, together with its urban follow-up Operation Radd-ul-Fasad, all but incapacitated the TTP’s structural and economic supply chain.
In September and October of 2020, when the last pocket of resistance in North Waziristan was cleared and the Pak-Afghan border almost completely fenced, the future of the army’s role in the erstwhile tribal areas along the border was under discussion.
With a district administration taking root and establishing its writ in these areas, it was thought that the military would restrict itself to the traditional role of being deployed on the border, with only a second or third tier role in the internal security situation.
But in May 2023, the TTP claimed to have carried out 76 attacks across the country — the highest in the last eight years — while managing to gain traction in the jihadist sphere.
When it first appeared in 2007, the proscribed group consisted of around nine groups. But by the early 2020s, it had merged over 30 different militant outfits of varying ethnicities and capabilities into its fold.
Even when the TTP held no territory inside Pakistan — a fact disputed by the group, which repeatedly claims to be operating from Pakistani soil — it has carried out at least one attack on a daily basis in the preceding months.
But despite the negotiations the group held with the Pakistani state over a span of two years, the TTP remains one of the biggest security challenges to Pakistan.
So, what happened?
Before the fall of Kabul to the so-called Islamic Emirate, the debate amid the top Pakistani leadership included the fear of TTP completely becoming a proxy of hostile intelligence agencies. This is an argument Islamabad has used against the militant group to create the otherness required for ostracising its ideology and intentions after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
At the time, the conclusion was that following a US withdrawal, the violent forces in Afghanistan will lose their legitimacy to fight. When that comes to pass, the Pakistani authorities reckoned, the TTP would also lose whatever ideological legitimacy it enjoyed in its conflict with the state.
As a reference guide, the critically acclaimed book by Tony Blair’s senior advisor Jonathan Powell, Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts, was put to use.
In their minds, strategists of the time figured that the right moment to engage insurgent groups was either in the aftermath of a natural disaster, a paradigmatic shift in internal dynamics, leadership changes, or the ripeness of a situation that yields favourable results or a global shift in policies.
In Pakistan’s case, the global shift came in the shape of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ripeness of the situation, as it was understood, triggered a desire in the security establishment to take this war on terror to its logical conclusion — The Endgame Strategy, as it was labelled.
However, this premise was based on one condition which was taken on face value; a great expectation that the Afghan Taliban will return the favour to Pakistan by exerting all their influence on TTP, not just to bring them to the negotiation table, but also put an end to violent attacks inside Pakistan.
Thus began a series of engagements on multiple levels, the first of which was held at Alwara Mandi, North Waziristan, in December 2020. Representatives of the Pakistani security establishment met with TTP emissaries of the Mehsud and Swat factions, to name a few of the most prominent amongst the TTP.
At least 11 groups participated in these talks, whose purpose was to establish contact, build trust, and explore opportunities to remove obstacles and enter into formal negotiations. The meeting remained cordial, albeit laden with suspicion and anxiety about an uncertain future course of action. However, both sides agreed to adopt a process for future engagements.
In retrospect, the negotiations, peace process, or talks may be divided into three distinct phases. The first was when Lt General (Retired) Faiz Hameed was serving as the director-general of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the US had not yet withdrawn from Afghanistan. During this time, contact was established, trust building measures were adopted, and a detailed map for negotiations was laid out.
At the time, several government officials, including President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan confirmed that the authorities were holding talks with the TTP This was followed by an official announcement of a ceasefire between the TTP and the Pakistani state in Nov 2021.
The second phase commenced when Gen Faiz was appointed Corps Commander Peshawar, the US had withdrawn from Kabul and the Afghan Taliban were the de facto rulers of Afghanistan. During this phase, there were detailed engagements held through frequent meetings in Khost, Kabul (Afghanistan) and Peshawar between all relevant stakeholders, including a delegation of the Afghan Taliban acting as intermediaries.
The third phase began once Gen Faiz was posted out of Peshawar. During this phase, the process slowed down, then stalled and then finally broke down after militants affiliated with TTP Swat entered the valley and attacked police, who were unaware of their presence in the area.
It is important to note that after the fall of Kabul, the eagerness for reconciliation within the security establishment enhanced considerably. Efforts were made to assess the sentiments of local tribes about the supposed repatriation of militants to their respective villages and tribes.
Meetings were held with elders and other stakeholders from all of the seven tribal districts, who generally agreed with the idea of absorbing the militants back into their respective cultural and geographical spheres.
But all tribes agreed that they must come unarmed and not presume themselves the masters of their areas, or try to set up a parallel administration, as had been seen in the past.
Their proposed return was, however, a contentious issue for families whose loved ones had been killed at the hands of the TTP; they were not willing to forgive and forget so easily.
TTP and IEA: Two sides of the same coin
With the return of the Afghan Taliban to Kabul on August 15, 2021, the TTP was seemingly emboldened, both ideologically and operationally. Since then, the group actively started a process of re-inventing itself, shifting from a ragtag militia to a full-blown insurgency, culminating in January 2023 with the adoption of a new administrative and operational structure, which saw the group being remodelled on the contours of the hierarchy of the Afghan Taliban.
For their part, the Afghan Taliban were utilising the TTP as an extension of their administrative structure in the tribal areas. As TTP is under the bayt (oath) of the so-called Islamic Emirate, they are by default providing the rulers of Kabul a certain strategic and ideological depth into Pakistan, a specular phenomenon that Islamabad once used to earnestly seek with regard to Afghanistan.
During the Afghan Taliban insurgency, the Taliban started to appoint shadow provincial and district governors. Alongside the formation of provinces, the Taliban also gradually created 18 commissions that acted like ministries, encompassing all aspects of governance, including political, economic, media, and culture.
In February of this year, the TTP announced a new organisational structure, comprising two zones — north and south — where nine administrative and operational units (wilayahs or shadow provinces) were established. Among these, seven units covered the province of KP, one was located in Gilgit-Baltistan and another in the Pashtun-dominated Zhob division of Balochistan.
In June, another unit was established, also in Balochistan, for the areas of Qalat and Makran, marking the first organised, territorial foothold of the TTP in a non-Pashtun majority area of the province.
Additionally, two new administrative units were also established in Punjab — north and south — potentially expanding the operational horizons of the group in urban centres.
Every province is headed by a shadow governor and at least a deputy, as well as supervised by an intelligence officer, following the model of the Afghan Taliban.
In a video released in Dec 2021, TTP leader Noor Wali Mehsud stated that the group was an extension of the Afghan Taliban into Pakistan. The newly-released United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team report on Afghanistan also mentions that: “The [Afghan] Taliban does not consider TTP a threat to Afghanistan, but rather as part of the emirate.”
So while on the one hand, the Doha Agreement forbade the Afghan Taliban from hosting any foreign militant entity on Afghan soil, on the other, the TTP presence in Afghanistan remains very obvious, even though the Kabul regime has repeatedly denied this.
“Contrary to statements to not allow Afghan soil to be used for attacks against other countries, the Taliban have harboured and allowed active support of [TTP], which routinely conducts attacks across the border in Pakistan,” the UNSC Monitoring Team report claims.
But the most obvious link between the two entities is the spiritual hierarchy. The TTP emir is under the direct bayt of the Afghan Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada.
In jihadist terms, the concept of bayt is the cornerstone that supports the network and its validity is tightly linked to the person who benefits from the oath of allegiance, at least until their death.
A galaxy of jihadist organisations has by now pledged allegiance to Akhundzada, including local groups like the TTP and global outfits such as Al Qaeda. They will remain loyal to the Emirate, while benefiting from the support of the Afghan Taliban in times of crisis.
A new media warfare
As a complementary tool to its military strategy, the TTP has also enhanced its media onslaught by centralising and expanding the outfit’s propaganda output.
With the reorganisation of its Media Commission and the Umar Media Department, now led by a senior TTP ideologue, media propagandist, and former Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) member, Chaudry Muneeb Ur Rehman Jutt, the media activities of the group have drastically diversified, making it a powerful tool to attract fresh recruits and frame an effective narrative.
In recent years, the TTP has also stepped up the production of its videos by launching several new series related to various topics, ranging from armed combat to comments on socio-political events and criticism directed at the state and public institutions.
At the same time, the Umar Radio programme — the original audio series of the TTP currently managed by Mawlana Yaseer — is for the first time accompanied by “Pasoon”, a podcast that has now grown to 20 episodes.
Each episode features several guests, usually either from the TTP’s so-called “ministries” or members of different commissions that the group has set up. Through the podcast, the speakers address Pakistan’s political and economic situation, thereby exploiting the grievances and insecurities of different segments of society to push their agenda and legitimise the outfit’s own struggle.
Under the new media offensive, the TTP has also expanded its written publications, particularly its magazine, ‘Mujalla Taliban’. The magazine, four years after it was founded in 2016 had only published eight issues, but between January and June 2023, it has published five issues already.
Not only has the publication volume seen a marked increased, the quality of its content has also picked up, constantly drawing a comparison between Pakistan’s system of governance and the one in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Additionally, the TTP recently announced the publication of a 10-day newspaper “Manzil”, mainly featuring reports of the targeted attacks it carries out and columns dedicated to Pakistan’s current affairs. In March earlier this, the group also launched a new magazine specifically dedicated to women.
The TTP’s new media strategy is a direct result of the group’s desire to reshape its narrative, following a new ideological trend, framed specifically after the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. The idea is to depict itself as an insurgent, completely native and independent group to appeal to the local and international community.
For this purpose, the TTP has carefully crafted and disseminated several messages that are clearly intended for the international audience. Of late, it has appealed to the international community regarding the plight of Pashtun and Baloch populations as well as highlighted the lack of basic amenities provided by the Pakistani state to these people, specifically referring to water, gas, and electricity.
In January, it also addressed economic issues in the country, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement. Moreover, the TTP has repeatedly rejected any claim linking the group with global Jihadist entities such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, stating that the group is fighting on its own without the support of any other group or country. On the other hand, the TTP tries to show itself as a legitimate group that is advocating for the well-being of Pashtun and Baloch people.
The group is even seen consistently distancing itself from the Afghan Taliban so as not to put the latter in a difficult spot in view of its international and regional obligations of not hosting any militant outfits posing a threat to any other country.
A spiral of violence
The threat of religious militancy is not going away any time soon. In fact, expecting that a two-decade long conflict can be fixed with interventions spanning weeks or months is somewhat delusional.
With the return of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, jihadist movements such as the TTP are feeling re-energised and emboldened. In the so-called Islamic Emirate, Pakistani outfits have found a model to emulate and practically adopt in the quest of their jihadist objectives against Pakistan.
Pakistan’s internal dynamics are also ripe for these groups, since insurgencies thrive on turmoil and chaos and can gain strength from political, economic, and social uncertainty.
Addressing the country’s internal turmoil and ending the prevailing political and economic uncertainty is a fundamental step towards mitigating the insurgent challenge. Doing so will make it difficult for such group to find recruits, further their grievances and build anti-state narratives.
A uni-dimensional approach, relying merely on kinetic actions while ignoring the political drivers of the insurgency, has yielded no sustainable results in the past 20 years, and if that approach is continued in the future, it is likely to be met with more failures.
The authors are journalists associated with The Khorasan Diary, a digital news and research platform.
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