Brothers in arms?
Every single day now brings fresh reports of terrorist attacks carried out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The latest such attack was on Saturday in North Waziristan district. Just days ago, four security personnel in the (former) tribal districts of Orakzai, Khyber and South Waziristan were killed in three separate attacks on the same day.
In the month of July alone, the TTP has claimed 26 such attacks, the majority of which took place in North and South Waziristan and Bajaur.
Thus far the attacks follow a pattern of hit and run on security forces, whether police mobiles or military checkposts, and while there have thankfully not been any major attacks of the kind we suffered during the darkest days of terrorism in Pakistan, and while we cannot know how many such attacks have been foiled by the pre-emptive strikes of security forces and intelligence agencies, it is nonetheless clear that the TTP are raising their profile in Pakistan once again and that this is happening as the Afghan Taliban fight for ascendancy in Afghanistan.
The warning signs have been present for some time now.
In 2018, Noor Wali Mehsud assumed command of the TTP, and in August 17 2020, presided over a ‘re-unification’ ceremony in which the Hizb ul Ahrar and the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar rejoined the ranks of the TTP. And so, from safe havens on Afghan soil, the TTP once again began to plot murder and mayhem, with attacks in Pakistan rising to 149 in 2020, as compared to 37 such attacks in the entirety of 2019. It should have been clear even then that the TTP was very much back in business, and that their leadership was operating from territories nominally under control of the Afghan Taliban. But given the chaotic situation prevailing in that country, this was perhaps considered inevitable. There may even have been some hopes that the Afghan Taliban, who should have reasons not to overly antagonize Pakistan, may prevail upon their ideological brethren to tone down their activities, especially at a time when the Afghan Taliban are engaged in a bloody battle for control of Afghanistan and are signalling, at least to the international community, that they will act responsibly in the event that they take control of Afghanistan.
One argument is that the Afghan Taliban need the support and resources of the TTP as they carry on their war and are thus reluctant to take even cosmetic action against them until they gain control of Afghanistan, but the proof of this hypothesis will not be evident for some time to come.
Instead, the opposite is happening: not only are the TTP stepping up their tempo, they have also sharpened their messaging. Just last month TTP chief Noor Wali, who has often erroneously been reported killed, gave an interview to CNN which not only qualified as proof of his continued existence but also laid out the TTP’s agenda for the future: to continue attacks on Pakistan and to split off the former tribal areas into a separate emirate. While this is a departure from the TTP’s previous ‘mission statement’, it begs the question: could the TTP give such an interview without the go-ahead of the Afghan Taliban? And if not, what does that portend? Even if we were to assume that the Afghan Taliban have adopted a hands-off approach to TTP attacks in Pakistan, Noor Wali’s interview indicates tacit approval at the very least, and possibly a signal to Pakistan to not even think of increasing costs or pressure on the Afghan Taliban to compromise politically. There’s more: the interview was followed just a few days earlier by another propaganda message from Mehsud in which he calls upon all militant organizations in pakistan to unite under his banner against the Pakistani state. If we say the interview slipped by the Afghan Taliban, which is unlikely, this seems like confirmation of approval. One should also note, that while the Afghan Taliban have actively been attacking groups linked with Daesh, they have never acted against the TTP, and the only attack in Pakistan by that group that they condemned was the Army Public School massacre.
Pakistan’s concerns about the TTP are mirrored by the concerns China has about the activities of the ETIM, which is also based in Afghanistan, but while China has received some vague reassurances on that front, Pakistan has not even qualified for lip service. One argument is that the Afghan Taliban need the support and resources of the TTP as they carry on their war and are thus reluctant to take even cosmetic action against them until they gain control of Afghanistan, but the proof of this hypothesis will not be evident for some time to come.
At this point, the war for Afghanistan dangles on the edge of a knife: if the Afghan government manages to hold major cities until the end of the fighting season, it will attract the support of not just internal players, but also foreign interests. The Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, will then need the support of any and all allied groups which includes the TTP. Where then does that leave Pakistan?
– Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News.