By Aditya Mehrotra
On 6th February 2022, an incident claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, at least five Pakistani soldiers were killed by fire in Afghanistan. It comes just days after Baloch separatists in the southwest killed nine Pakistani troops in a series of brazen attacks that officials said involved planners from Afghanistan as well as India.
The Taliban in Afghanistan promised not to allow terror organizations to operate from the nation after gaining control in August, but Pakistani terrorist groups have long sought refuge across the porous border. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack in the hilly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s Kurram region on 6th February, 2022.
What is Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan?
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is Pakistan’s largest militant group battling the government. The TTP has several thousand militants in Afghanistan, according to the UN, with strongholds on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Although the TTP declined from 2014 to 2018, due to Pakistani military activities, US drone warfare, and factional infighting, the terrorist group has experienced a dramatic recovery since the Afghan Taliban and the US Government reached a peace accord in February 2020. Indeed, ten militant groups opposed the Pakistani merging with the TTP since July 2020, including three Pakistani al-Qaeda affiliates and four major factions that split from the TTP in 2014. TTP violence has increased as a result of these mergers, and this trend is expected to continue following the Afghan Taliban’s conquest of Kabul in August 2021.
After 9/11, Al-Qaeda’s politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan resulted in the formation of the organization. While enjoying safe refuge under Taliban authority in Afghanistan, the TTP maintains covert ties with Al-Qaeda and has said that it regards Afghan Taliban commanders as its own. Even though the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) was founded by disgruntled TTP members, it has always avoided violent conflict with the group.
Moreover, According to a US intelligence Assessment, the ISKP is capable of conducting a near-term strike in the West, including the United States which in turn makes the Af-Pak Relations even more futile.
Decoding TTP in the Contemporary Setup
The TTP is a by-product of the intra-Jihadi politics that erupted in the aftermath of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. The TTP asserts that the purpose of its armed struggle is to establish an Islamic political system in Pakistan based on the group’s interpretation of Sharia, which it believes was the primary goal of Pakistan’s establishment since inception.
Recently, Top Afghan Taliban leaders assured Pakistan’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Moeed Yusuf during his visit to Kabul that Afghan soil would not be used against Pakistan’s neighbors. Yusuf met with Afghanistan’s acting Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi and Acting Foreign Minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi on a high-level inter-ministerial visit to Kabul on January 29-30. “While receiving an inter-ministerial delegation in the Afghan capital, Hanafi stated, “We also expect comparable measures from others.”
Since the Taliban assumed control of Kabul, ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been slowly deteriorating. For example, after the Taliban took control in August, there has been an increase in terrorist strikes in Pakistan, defying Islamabad’s hopes that they would take harsh actions against their former comrades-in-arms and deport them. Pakistan had been encouraged by the Afghan Taliban to have discussions with the TTP, which Islamabad agreed in the futile expectation that the Afghan Taliban would use their influence to bring the insurgent organization to heel.
A Schism on the Horizon?
There are no signs that the Afghan-Pakistan border problem may be addressed, as the Taliban looks intent on maintaining the Pashtun unity slogan. If this problem persists, it might create fertile ground for more border incidents, perhaps escalating tensions.
Similarly, despite the Pakistani government’s efforts to engage in dialogue with the TTP, peace with the armed organization appears improbable, given internal motivation to continue on its deadly path. The stronger the public pressure in Pakistan to take serious action, particularly against the TTP’s principal sponsor, the Afghan Taliban, the more it increases its assaults on security personnel and civilians. Any such attacks on Chinese assets, as well as evidence of coordination with Uighur armed organizations, would prompt Beijing to demand a forceful reaction to the TTP.
While the Pakistani government appears eager to maintain close ties with Kabul, domestic pressures, as well as a push from China, could force Islamabad to rethink its strategy and put an end to its international support for the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani government might go even farther and support anti-Taliban factions in Afghanistan, perhaps destabilizing Taliban authority.
If Kabul loses its main foreign backer, it will have two options:
(i) It would try to re-establish ties with the West and the United States, or revert to its previous role as a regional hub for insurgencies and terrorist networks. The first alternative would be difficult to fulfill, as the West has stated that before reaching a deal with the Taliban, it wants firm assurances for women’s and minority rights, as well as democratic institutions.
(ii) It would very certainly increase its backing for the TTP and its assaults on Pakistan, and it may even start coordinating with the ISKP and al-Qaeda.
The gravity of the threat posed by TTP
The TTP remains as an urgent security issue for Pakistan, which has resiliently launched rigorous counterinsurgency operations while striving to quiet religious extremism at home, a situation with both national security and law and order repercussions. Islamabad has frequently urged the Afghan Taliban to demonstrate its adherence to the Doha Agreement’s guarantees that Afghan land will not be used for terrorism against any nation, including Pakistan. TTP members, who, according to UN estimates, number in the thousands in Afghanistan, have been reportedly traveling freely to and from Kabul since the Afghan Taliban took power, no doubt encouraged by the weakened strength of Pakistan-US counterterrorism coordination.
In terms of the Anti-Pakistan TTP, the Afghan Taliban’s non-committal public position has at least Four logic:
(i) Firstly,, despite ideological differences, the Afghan Taliban is culturally sympathetic to the TTP’s purported jihadist opposition to the Pakistani state, and vice versa. The TTP, which is believed to have fought with the Afghan Taliban, congratulated the Afghan Taliban on their win in August and noted the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan as a goal worth replicating in Pakistan. Links to the TTP are claimed to have aided the Afghan Taliban’s membership growth, and the Afghan Taliban may be forced to follow the time-honored Pashtunwali tradition of not ejecting the TTP from the country’s eastern pockets.
(ii) Secondly, antagonizing the TTP risks driving its hard-line members into the clutches of the Afghan Taliban’s far more powerful foe, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). The TTP remains a fissiparous group, and there is the precedence of its divisions having declared allegiance to ISIS-K in the past. ISIS-K has carried out fatal strikes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, posing a danger to the Afghan Taliban’s capacity to consolidate authority and administer successfully. The TTP may be able to use this information to entice the Afghan Taliban into allowing it to continue operating on Afghan land.
(iii) Thirdly, the TTP’s presence in Afghanistan provides the Afghan Taliban a very genuine negotiating advantage vis-à-vis the Pakistani state, while concurrently debunking perceptions of any remaining strategic co-dependence. The Afghan Taliban has to provide the image of independence to bolster domestic and global legitimacy and establish new alliances with regional actors like India. Islamabad has long accused India of funding and backing separatist organizations in the Baloch region, including the TTP. As a result, it’s not out of the question that both the Afghan Taliban and India would benefit (though in different ways) by backing a TTP that holds the Pakistani state in check.
(iv) Finally, the Afghan Taliban’s refusal to budge on the international border fence between Pakistan and Afghanistan might be another incentive for the new administration to permit the TTP on its land. The Afghan Taliban, like previous Afghan regimes, refuses to acknowledge Pakistan’s international boundary. Meanwhile, the TTP has shifted its aims in recent years to become more ethno-nationalist, even endorsing the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a nonviolent, secular protest movement demanding rights for Pashtuns in Pakistan’s erstwhile tribal territories. If the TTP’s attack on the Pakistani state results in more cross-border irredentism, the Afghan Taliban may perceive itself as a net benefit of the subsequent ethnic unrest.
The Way Forward
The TTP, which calls the Pakistani state an apostate and the army a colonial force, is gaining traction on Pakistan’s mainland. An armed war might lead to daring retaliation strikes on Pakistan’s heartland, outside of Waziristan and FATA, utilizing residual weaponry and ammunition smuggled into the country following the quick US exit. Targeted assassinations of important TTP figures in Afghanistan, such as Mohammed Khorasani, the TTP fighter, and commander Daud Mehsud, have provided Pakistan with a short reprieve.
The Afghan Taliban appears to be more inclined to radicalize further and resort to cooperation with other armed organizations and terrorist elements. It would very certainly increase its backing for the TTP and its assaults on Pakistan, and it may even start coordinating with the ISKP and al-Qaeda.
Consequently, the situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban in the next months will be extremely complex and unclear, and any chance of stability and long-term peace soon is unlikely.
Aditya Mehrotra is a Second Year Law Student from Symbiosis Law School Pune. He’s a Foreign Policy Enthusiast having a knack for Af-Pak Relations.
Image credits – Getty Images