TTP | The Taliban that’s fighting Pakistan

Emboldened by the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Kabul, their ideological brethren in Pakistan look set to fight a long battle

Published - December 12, 2021 12:02 am IST

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) recent decision to end a ceasefire with the Imran Khan Government has turned the tables on Pakistan, which was at a relatively advantageous position with the arrival of the Afghan Taliban in Kabul. The TTP has declared that it is a part of the Emirate of Afghanistan led by the Taliban of Kabul and that it is not a part of Pakistan. While the Afghan Taliban have rejected this claim, the ties between the two Taliban branches go back years. The TTP has also accused Pakistan of not keeping a part of the agreement which “guaranteed” the release of its fighters, mainly in the tribal northwest of the country. The TTP says the Government had promised the release of over 100 prisoners, which it did not keep. Pakistan says it would release the prisoners but would not allow them to cross the border to Afghanistan.

The disagreement appears futile as most of the fighters to be released are from the northwest and once freed, it is just a matter of time before they cross over to Afghanistan.

Another demand of the TTP is that it wants Pakistan to embrace the Sharia law like in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s immediate concern is that after securing the release of its militants, the TTP, already emboldened by the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul, could carry out attacks inside Pakistan, pursuing its goal of turning the country into a land where a stricter version of the Sharia is imposed. Another worry is that the TTP has expressed allegiance to Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader, thereby securing the blessings of the Taliban leaders in Kabul and Kandahar. Since August, Pakistan has been struggling to take advantage of the Afghan theatre. It had sent the Inter-Service Intelligence chief to Kabul twice to secure support of the Taliban leaders for its strategic goals. However, the script did not go as expected.

The rise

The TTP first hit the headlines in 2007 when it was blamed for the assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The assassination, during an election rally, was blamed on the then TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, who wanted to get rid of Bhutto because of her pro-U.S. leanings. The TTP denied involvement in the killing but there were reports that the group had sent two assassins for the mission as they feared Bhutto would have collaborated with the Americans to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The roots of the organisation go back to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The air raids and ground invasion of Afghanistan forced thousands of foreign fighters, including Osama bin Laden-led al Qaeda, to leave Afghanistan and take refuge in the tribal territories of Pakistan such as Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber. It was in the mud hills and mountain caves of these enclaves that the foreign fighters dug in and established underground networks to survive air attacks. It was in the mountains of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that the fraternity between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani wing of the group took shape.

Platform of militants

The TTP was formed in 2007 as a platform of militants under the leadership of Mehsud. An ethnic Pashtun, Meshud was associated with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), the Deobandi Islamic party of Maulana Fazlur Rahman. In the 1990s, after the Taliban took Kabul, Mehsud went to Afghanistan to fight the Northern Alliance, the united front of anti-Taliban militias that was backed by India, Russia and Iran. After the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, Mehsud emerged as a major tribal leader in the Pakistani tribal belt, where he brought together different militia groups to form the TTP.

Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone attack in 2009 but by that time, the TTP had established itself in Pakistan’s FATA, fighting the Pakistani military as well as the U.S. drones. The TTP’s goals in Pakistan are similar to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The TTP wants to overthrow the Pakistani state and implement its hardline interpretation of Sharia across the country. They had nurtured close ties with al-Qaeda, and had carried out some of the deadliest terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. Their worst attack came in 2014 when they killed 147 persons, mostly students, in an Army Public School in Peshawar. The attack even received condemnation from the Afghan Taliban. The TTP claimed responsibility for the attack, stating it’s a retaliation to the ongoing Zarb-e-Azab campaign of the Pakistan military, which began in 2014 to rid the tribal areas of foreign and native terrorists.

Over the years, the TTP has emerged as the most powerful terrorist organisation within Pakistan. Powered by native Pashtuns and Sunni extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhanvi, the TTP has often been chosen by the foreign fighters from Chechnya, Central Asia and Arab countries as a refuge. As of 2019, there were about 4,000 TTP militants in Afghanistan, according to a Pentagon report. The most recent addition to the arsenal of the TTP is the Islamic State of Khorasan or the IS-K, which has been facing pressure within Afghanistan from the Taliban rulers. Over the last several weeks, the Taliban have been carrying out attacks against the IS-K in the eastern part of the country near the Pakistani border.

For the Afghan Taliban, the TTP is both a liability and a weapon. It’s a liability because the Taliban are seeking international legitimacy and economic aid as well as continued support from Pakistan. Close ties with the TTP could be a hurdle in its bid for legitimacy. It’s also a weapon because the Taliban can use the TTP against Pakistan if their relations with the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment is disturbed in any way.

Two factions

Most of the top Taliban leaders like Mullah Baradar, Hibatullah Akhundzada and the Haqqanis were either based in Pakistan or given shelter in the country by the military establishment. However, after taking power, two dominant factions have emerged in the Taliban — the Kandahar faction and the Kabul faction. The Kandahar faction, led by Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar and Mullah Yaqoub, son of the former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, appears to have asserted itself as an independent entity unwilling to be controlled by the ISI. The Kabul faction, dominated by the Haqqani Network, keeps deep ties with the Pakistani establishment.

The Afghan Taliban had played a role in the ceasefire between Pakistan and the TTP. With the ceasefire now broken and divisions running deep within the Afghan Taliban, an emboldened TTP could pose fresh security challenges to Pakistan. On Saturday, within hours of the collapse of the ceasefire, a TTP gunman opened fire at two policemen in northwest Pakistan, killing one of them. The TTP immediately claimed responsibility as if it’s warning the government of what’s to come in the days ahead.

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