Pakistan’s Terrorist Problem: The Return of the Tehreek-e-Taliban
The Taliban (known as Afghan Taliba) are a pro-Pashtun, Sunni Islamist nationalist movement that rose to power in the early 1990s and held sway over much of Afghanistan from 1996 until October 2001. The original core of the movement, which took its name from the Pashto term for “students,” “Taliban,” was made up of poor farmers and men who had studied Islam in madrasas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban established themselves in the south of Afghanistan and strengthened their position there. After the Soviet Union abandoned Afghanistan in 1992 and the Afghan government crumbled, the country descended into civil war. By 1994, the Taliban had made their way through the south and captured numerous provinces from various armed factions. The first thing the Taliban did was to impose a literalist interpretation of the Quran on all educational and legal institutions. Those policies were often considered ruthless toward women, political opponents of any stripe, and religious minorities.
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) draws its name from the Taliban, they were Taliban sympathisers on the Pakistani side. Many tiny militant groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) began networking with one another, marking the beginning of their transformation from being Taliban supporters and sympathisers to becoming a mainstream Taliban force in the region. These events unfolded around 2002–2004, when Pakistani forces were primarily focused on locating “foreigners” in the region with ties to al-Qaida. As time went on, several other local extremist groups that were outlawed in Pakistan began joining the Taliban in FATA, either as followers or as allies. Throughout this time, the Pakistani Taliban maintained their own identity rather than becoming fully integrated into the Afghan Taliban’s hierarchy under Mullah Omar. From their vantage point, they strategically carved out a space for themselves in Pakistan through a combination of military attacks and talks with the Pakistani government.
It was a coalition of militant groups that came together in 2007 to coordinate their fight against the Pakistani government. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) became a militant Islamist organisation whose stated goals include eradicating Pakistan’s influence in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, imposing a strict interpretation of Sharia law throughout Pakistan, and establishing an Islamic caliphate. The TTP had longstanding contacts with high-ranking al-Qaida officials, including the group’s previous head of operations in Pakistan.
Seven provinces make up the semi-autonomous FATA: Bajour, Orakzai, Khyber, Mohmand, North Waziristan, South Waziristan, and Kurram. North Waziristan Agency is frequently regarded as Pakistan’s epicentre of insurgency and a hotbed of militant groups due to its mountainous and unforgiving landscape. The safe haven for militants and the continual hindrance to other military operations were devastating to North Waziristan’s survival. Terrorist plots originated in the NWA. Therefore, on June 15, 2014, the Pakistani government launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against all militant groups in the country, including the TTP. It was a major military operation in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of North Waziristan, which is strategically located between the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Terrorist groups exploited NWA as a safe haven while waging war against Pakistan, which impeded the country’s economic progress and resulted in massive human and other casualties. This operation aimed to retake control of FATA and the surrounding territories by eliminating all insurgents in the region.
In 2017, General Qamar Bajwa launched Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (the removal of conflict and violence), which followed Zarb-e-Azb by General Raheel Shareef (the then Pakistan Army Chief). Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad was initiated to provide the idea that Operation Zarb-e-Azb had been effective in breaking the back of militancy and that only “mopping up” remained, which the operation would do. However, several of the militants crossed the border and regrouped in Afghanistan. According to one estimate, the TTP currently commands between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters.
Following the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, the terrorists resumed their brutal activities from North Waziristan, the TTP’s final stronghold. In the provinces, they had been coordinating attacks and bombings that killed both civilians and the military. Midway through 2021, TTP initiated a series of suicide bombings, IED explosions, sniper strikes, ambushes, etc. Noor Wali Mehsud, the supreme leader of the TTP, stated in a taped message in October 2021 that his organisation will liberate all tribal regions from Pakistan and make them independent. “The Pakistan Army is a vestige of colonialism; the Durand Line splits Pashtuns.” “Our conflict is solely with Pakistan, as we are at war with the Pakistani military,” Mehsud stated.
The Pakistani government launched peace discussions with the TTP with the intention of reducing such violence. As part of the negotiations, all parties agreed to a ceasefire beginning on November 9, 2021, and ending on May 30, 2022, which was extended indefinitely in June 2022, this year. In addition, separate committees were established to plan out the negotiation process in greater detail. It was believed that this meeting would pave the path for a permanent solution that would stop years of instability and conflict. However, this did not occur, and explosions and deaths continue. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) proclaimed the end of an indefinite truce agreed upon with the government in June and ordered its fighters to launch operations across the nation. “As military operations against mujahideen are occurring in several regions, it is important that you conduct assaults everywhere you can in the entire country,” the group warned in a statement on Monday.
Since the army and intelligence agencies in Pakistan have shown no signs of stopping their attacks, the statement warned that retaliatory attacks would soon be launched across the country. “We submit to the people of Pakistan that we have repeatedly warned you and continued to be patient so that the negotiation process is not sabotaged, at least by us,” it read. Notably, the TTP made the statement the day after the English cricket team came to Pakistan after 17 years to play the first test series and the day before the new army chief was scheduled to assume his post. This is significant.
What does the resurgence of the TTP mean for Pakistan’s plight? At a time when there is political instability, extensive marches and demonstrations in the country. How will the Pakistani government respond to the crisis? Pakistan is currently balancing precariously on a tightrope; if it fails to manage these issues, unrest is likely, and Pakistan will soon reach a standstill. Besides the instability, Pakistan will be blaming Afghanistan and damaging its friendly relations with it. According to Pakistan, the Taliban in Kabul is allowing the TTP to establish a base from which to launch attacks inside Pakistan. According to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, the number of militant assaults in Pakistan has increased by 50% in the year since the Taliban assumed control of Afghanistan. There are reports about lawmakers and business owners in northwest Pakistan are increasingly being blackmailed by the TTP. Islamabad has long battled to establish its authority in the region, so the presence of militants there is a highly delicate issue.
Meanwhile, the group’s deadly campaign has been gathering speed, with the latest serious attack in the Lakki Marwat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where at least six policemen were killed. Suppose the security establishment and political leadership do not begin to nip this evil in the bud. In that case, the Quetta attack, will mark the commencement of a deadly post-ceasefire campaign by the TTP. Four aspects of the TTP stand out as particularly worrying at the moment: its dynamic nature, its will to resurrect itself, the potential attractiveness of its message to aggrieved communities, and its integration into the larger militant environment. The Pakistani government must move beyond traditional military tactics if it wants to defeat the TTP and prevent it from spreading its ideology, attracting new members, or working with other violent extremist organisations while at the same time resuming talks and negotiations with the group.
(Muhammad Umar is a research scholar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).