Inter-militant rivalries and Afghanistan-Pakistan’s evolving threat landscape

Inter-militant rivalries and Afghanistan-Pakistan’s evolving threat landscape

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The Afghanistan-Pakistan militant landscape is competitive and dynamic, resulting in a fluid operational environment as well as shifting rivalries and alliances. By and large, following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the focus of militant groups in the region, barring Daesh-Khorasan, has been on alliance-making and mergers. This pattern is quite visible in the Newly Merged Districts (NMDs) where about 54 militant factions have merged into Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) since July 2020. Likewise, some groups have joined Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group (HGB). At the same time, TTP, HGB and Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) have carried out joint attacks as well. Furthermore, discussions of a possible merger between these groups have also taken place without much success. 

The TTP-Daesh-K relationship is the only exception to this norm and offers important insights into how ideologically rival groups have managed their antagonism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Though Daesh-K comprises breakaway factions of TTP, both have avoided armed clashes and undue criticism in their respective propaganda publications to focus on their primary goals. It bears mention that Daesh-K has a transnational militant outlook while TTP is a Pakistan-centric group. The former has pledged its oath of allegiance to Daesh and acts as its official franchise in Afghanistan, while the latter has sworn its oath of fealty to the Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. 

TTP’s accommodative behavior toward Daesh-K is in sharp contrast to the Taliban’s harsh and ruthless approach. On the one hand, the Taliban have dismantled Daesh-K’s network in Afghanistan and killed its top leaders, pushing its remnants to Pakistan’s NMDs and Balochistan. On the other, a pro-Taliban website Al-Mirsad regularly produces strong ideological rebuttals against Daesh-K’s narratives and terms the group Khawarij, i.e., seceders. 

Among other factors, the fear of TTP militants moving toward Daesh-K has hindered the Afghan Taliban’s harsh approach toward TTP despite relentless pressure from Pakistan.

- Abdul Basit Khan

Interestingly, Daesh-K finds the NMDs less hostile to its presence as compared to Afghanistan. At any rate, TTP and Daesh-K’s pragmatism emanates from the hope of attracting each other’s fighters. Among other factors, the fear of TTP militants moving toward Daesh-K has hindered the Afghan Taliban’s harsh approach toward TTP despite relentless pressure from Pakistan. Furthermore, TTP and Daesh-K have avoided opening a front against each other so as not to provide a counterterrorism advantage to Pakistani security forces. 

Despite TTP and Daesh-K’s pragmatism, there have been instances where both groups have needled each other in the propaganda sphere. For instance, Daesh-K critiqued TTP in July 2022 for negotiating with the Pakistani state. Similarly, the group also responded rather harshly when TTP condemned the suicide attack on Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUIF)’s workers convention in Bajaur district in July 2023. Daesh-K termed the attack part of its war against democracy on account of being “un-Islamic.” Daesh-K termed TTP a tribal militia and a sympathizer of pro-democracy factions like JUI-F. It bears mention that Daesh-K has been involved in targeted assassinations of JUI-F workers and leaders in different parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, especially Bajaur district. TTP for its part has been trying to build bridges with Pakistan’s religio-political parties like JUI-F, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and even the neo-Barelvi Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). In multiple propaganda statements, TTP has invited JUIF and JI to join hands with TTP as they share the goal of bringing a Shariah system in Pakistan, albeit through different methods. 

On May 25, a member of TTP’s Executive Council Shoaib Bajauri termed Daesh-K an amalgamation of hard-line elements of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and TTP in a Twitter space. Shoaib maintained that TTP has no ties or agreement with Daesh-K; however, the former is not at war with the latter to avoid opening a new front while focusing on its primary target of fighting the Pakistani security forces. 

In response, Daesh-K published a 47-minute audio statement on June 2 full of polemics and allegations against the TTP. Daesh-K acknowledged that it comprises of former members of TTP, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; however, its militant campaign is not restricted by physical borders or a particular geography. Daesh-K termed TTP a “proxy” of the Taliban and “JUIF’s militia,” but stopped short of declaring war against TTP. Daesh-K maintained that its enemies, i.e., the Afghan Taliban and pro-democracy religio-political organizations, are well known. Hence, TTP does not need to fear Daesh-K unless it endorses democracy or supports the Taliban’s anti-Daesh operations in Afghanistan. 

TTP-Daesh-K’s latest verbal spat signifies three things. First, the tensions between the two groups are mounting and the space for accommodation is fast shrinking. Ostensibly, it will be difficult for both groups to contain their differences only to verbal exchanges in the future. Second, Daesh-K and TTP’s schisms will help the Taliban to keep the latter on its side without fearing migration of its fighters to the former. Finally, if TTP and Daesh-K’s war of words expands to violent clashes, it will facilitate Pakistan’s counterterrorism campaign in the NMDs. 

For effective counterterrorism, a deeper understanding of inter-group militant cooperation and rivalries in the NMDs is essential. The ability to rupture militant alliances and exploit the rivalries could pave the way for blunting the sharp edge of militancy. Subsequently, the state can focus on weakening the appeal of militant ideologies through policy reforms, development projects, job creation, better governance and strengthening the state-citizen bond in the NMDs. Concurrently, overhauling the existing border policy to manage the Afghanistan-Pakistan border more efficiently as well as revising the pro-Taliban Afghan policy are also important for long-term respite against militancy.

The author is a Senior Associate Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. X:@basitresearcher. 

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