IN the late 2020s, when it seemed imminent that the US was certainly withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, talk around the table of Pakistan’s security and political decision-makers related to the consequences of the withdrawal and its possible aftermath.
Within weeks, the rampaging Afghan Taliban would take control of the country. Their relationship with the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the rise of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), and the possible splintering of TTP and a potential merger with IS-K; these were all some of the worst-case scenarios envisioned by Pakistani strategists.
But the common denominator among all analyses was always the TTP.
Back in 2020, the TTP found its potency to be at stake due to an inability to carry out large-scale attacks and its shrinking finances, in the wake of 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.
The spiritual link between the Islamic Emirate and the banned TTP has been a key factor in the latter’s ability to reinvent itself after being all but crippled by successive military operations in 2020...
But in May 2023, the TTP carried out 76 attacks across the country — the highest in the last eight years — while managing to gain traction in the jihadist sphere.
Even when the group 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.
So how did a group whose footprint was all but erased from Pakistani soil, manage to come back with such a vengeance in a three-year period?
Before the fall of Kabul, the fear of TTP becoming a proxy of hostile intelligence agencies was chief among the fears expressed in leadership circles. 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, they reckoned, the TTP would also lose whatever ideological legitimacy it enjoyed in its conflict with the Pakistani state This was because the TTP had emerged from Pakistan siding with the US and its allies against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the argument made logical sense to strategists.
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 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 to just bring them to the negotiation table, but also put an end to violent attacks inside Pakistan.
Thus begun a series of engagements on multiple levels, the first of which was held at Alwara Mandi, North Waziristan in December 2020. Representatives of security agencies 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.
It is important to note that after the fall of Kabul, the eagerness for reconciliation on the Pakistani side was 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 in their respective cultural and geographical spheres.
But all tribes agreed that the former fighters 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.
However, their proposed return was a contentious issue for those 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 TTP as an extension of their administrative structure in the tribal areas. The TTP is under the bayt of (i.e. has pledged allegiance to) the so-called Islamic Emirate, and by default provide 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.
In February of this year, the TTP announced a new organisational structure, comprising of two zones — north and south — where nine administrative and operational units (wilayahs or shadow provinces) were established. Amongst 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 one hand, the Doha Agreement forbade the Afghan Taliban from hosting any foreign militant entity on Afghan soil, on the other hand, 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 harbored and allowed active support of [TTP], which routinely conducts attacks across the border in Pakistan,” the UNSC Monitoring Team report claims.
But the most 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.
Thriving in turmoil
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. In the so-called Islamic Emirate, Pakistani militant outfits have found a model to emulate and practically adopt in the quest of their jihadist objectives against Pakistan.
The country’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 internal turmoil and ending the political and economic uncertainty that currently prevails will be 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. A detailed version of this article can be accessed on dawn.com.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2023