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Radical Islam Makes its Way from Afghanistan to Pakistan
The Specter of the Tehreek-i-Taliban
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
For the past several days, mass protests across parts of Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) have brought to the limelight the way the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is regaining its foothold in the region bordering Afghanistan, which a year ago fell to the fundamentalist Taliban after two decades of futile efforts by the US to prop up a western-style government.
While there has been no meaningful official response from Pakistani authorities so far, videos circulating on social media show armed groups of the TTP moving freely in parts of the province. People claim that they are being forced to pay financial tribute – protection money – to the TTP commanders, with those refusing to obey facing threats to their businesses and even lives. Many indeed have been killed. According to sources who talked to Asia Sentinel, the TTP in some parts of the province has become a parallel administration.
Thus, the Pakistan state’s previous claims of having broken the backbone of terrorism stand shattered. Many believe that the TTP’s sudden re-emergence is part of some secret deal between the TTP and the Pakistan military, which has been, to the almost complete exclusion of the civilian government, spearheading talks with the banned terror outfit since October 2021. One of the TTP’s core demands is to regain political control of Pakistan's former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which were merged with the Khyber area in 2018. The TTP wants to reverse this merger to create what its leader, Noor Wali Mehsud, has repeatedly called an “Islamic Emirates” inside Pakistan.
If Pakistan decides to accept the TTP’s demand to reverse the merger, this will entail amending the constitution to accommodate a terror group. But this is a major risk, as it threatens thousands of people.
The ongoing protests in KPK province “show that there is hardly any popular support for the TTP and/or its politics of imposing the Shariah law,” said Wali Khan, a local resident of Waziristan. “Deal or no deal between the military and the militants, allowing the TTP is tantamount to disowning half a million people,” said Wali, leaving them at the mercy of a group that has killed more than 80,000 people in a long spate of terror attacks, including suicide bombings, across Pakistan in the last decade.
The TTP were primarily based in the federally administered territories until the Pakistan military’s various military operations – the last one was operation Zarb-e-Azb launched after the December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar – drove the group to eastern Afghanistan. Following the takeover of the Afghan Taliban in August 2021, hundreds of TTP fighters imprisoned in Afghanistan were freed, allowing Noor Wali Mehsud, the current head, to unite various TTP factions under his command.
This was followed by a resurgence of TTP attacks in Pakistan, killing almost 100 security personnel and civilians in 2021-22. In recent months, many anti-TTP activists have been targeted to wipe out nonviolent resistance against the specter of the melting pot of a transnational jihad.
The TTP, as the July 2022 report of the UN Security Council highlighted, is very well connected with other terror groups based in Afghanistan. The report mentions that the TTP, with 3,000 to 4,000 fighters, is the “largest component” of foreign fighters based in Afghanistan.
As previous UNSC reports have also highlighted, many TTP commanders are connected with al Qaeda and IS-K, the Islamic State-Khorasan Provinces group, an affiliate of the wider Islamic State. As the 2022 report also highlights, the anti-China East Turkestan Movement (ETIM) too has joined IS-K to wage jihad inside Afghanistan and use the Afghan territory to expand into Pakistan and China.
The TTP thus becomes a central actor in the existing distribution of jihadi networks in the so-called Af-Pak region, which is why allowing the TTP to settle in the former federally affiliated tribal areas won’t “bring peace as we are often told,” said a local resident and activist of Dir who wanted to remain anonymous.
“None of us, including our elders, are involved in the ongoing talks. Ever our elected representatives are totally unaware of what is happening or will happen”, continued the activist, adding that “Pakistan needs to change its policy fundamentally vis-à-vis the Taliban.”
It remains that Pakistan has many Taliban sympathizers. In fact, when the Afghan Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021, Imran Khan, the then prime minister known as a Taliban sympathizer, went on to congratulate them for “breaking the chains of slavery.”
Since 2013, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) has been in power in KPK province. Therefore, local residents of KPK – in particular, where the TTP has re-emerged – have little confidence in the ability of the provincial government to protect them from this threat.
Videos circulating on social media show officers of the Pakistan army and the KPK police under the TTP’s arrest. As locals confirmed, these officers were later released after talks mediated by a local jirga. “The state appears to be completely helpless in the face of this armed group,” said Wal Khan, the local resident.
The apparent incapacity of the KPK administration is not its exclusive trait. In fact, given Pakistan’s extremely precarious economic situation, there is virtually no appetite for fighting another extremist insurgency. The fact that the US too has withdrawn means that the Pakistan military’s new operations are unlikely to be funded by any ‘coalition support fund’ either.
That’s why Pakistan has adopted a so-called ‘soft approach’ to hammer out ‘tough issues.’ In the last week of July, a delegation of Pakistani clerics visited Kabul to meet the leader of TTP to convince him to change his stance on key demands, including de-merging the tribal areas, retaining arms and ammunition, and making no formal commitments regarding renouncing violence. The delegation, however, failed to convince Noor Wali Mehsud.
The TTP, sensing the Pakistan state’s current weak position, seems to have decided to establish itself in Pakistan without waiting for a formal deal. As Wali said, “even if we believe that there is no deal, the TTP’s maneuvers show it is moving towards presenting Pakistan with a fait accompli.”