The Return of the Pakistani Taliban

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The Return of the Pakistani Taliban

After fading in the wake of 2014’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the TTP is poised for a resurgence.

The Return of the Pakistani Taliban

In this June 15, 2016 file photo, a Pakistan army soldier stands guard in Pakistani tribal area of Khyber, near Torkham border post between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Credit: AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad, File

On October 4, an alleged commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Rehman Hussain, was acquitted by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan, in cases related to possession of arms and explosives.

Hussain has been linked to the TTP’s Fazlullah faction, named after former chief of the Pakistani Taliban Mullah Fazlullah, whose successor, Noor Wali Mehsud, was designated as a global terrorist by the United States last month.

Days before Mehsud’s sanctioning by the United States, two alleged TTP-affiliated militants were arrested in Punjab’s Gujranwala city. In April, three other TTP members were arrested in Faisalabad, Pakistan’s third most populous city.

The TTP has gradually resurfaced in the news after having largely faded in the aftermath of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014. The operation targeted the Pakistani Taliban and its splinters which had moved from South to North Waziristan following 2009’s Operation Rah-e-Nijat.

While recent reports indicate that the TTP’s plans in Punjab have been foiled, the group’s main hideout remains the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which are currently in the process of being merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after the 25th Amendment to the Pakistanu Constitution finally rid the tribal areas of the draconian, colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation.

In recent months, the TTP has increasingly made its presence felt in tribal areas through IED blasts targeting checkpoints. Perhaps the most ominous sign of TTP’s growing power came at the start of August, when the group issued a written warning to locals in Miranshah demanding a ban on music, women going out without a male accomplice, and polio vaccinations. 

“We remind you [residents] that similar statements issued by Taliban several times in the past had fallen on deaf ears, but this time we are going to take to task those who violate the Taliban order,” the message said.

“There will be no use of DJs, neither inside the house nor in open fields and those ignoring the warning will be responsible for consequences.”

The message was reminiscent of warnings issued by Fazlullah via radio in 2009. The TTP also instructed health workers not to administer polio vaccination drops to children. The statement maintained also that one out of three individuals in the region is an informer for the group.

While the Pakistani Taliban openly threaten locals in areas it controlled at the peak of its powers, the Pakistani state has been busy touting its successes in those very same regions.

State broadcaster PTV recently aired a documentary entitled Aman Aur Khushhali Ka Safar (The Journey of Peace and Prosperity) to underline progress made in the tribal areas.

Government data notes a plunge in the frequency of terror attacks in the tribal areas, a decrease from 330 in 2003 to just two in 2018, with the target-killing tally falling from 1,762 to five in the same period. 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last month that the government is fencing the Af-Pak border, showcasing it as a long-lasting solution. The Pakistani government claimed that 643 kilometers out of the total 2,611 kilometers had been fenced by the end of last year, during which 233 of the 843 border checkpoints were completed as well. 

While the border fencing is scheduled for completion next year, the government’s critics question the state’s intentions in the volatile region.

Among those challenging the official narrative in the tribal areas is the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which has channeled regional resentment against the Army, underscoring the shortcomings of military offences and highlighting the persistent issues that locals continue to experience.

After launching last year as a rights movement to protest the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young man, in Karachi by police who tried to cover the extrajudicial killing by labeling Mehsud a militant. The “fake encounter” sparked the advent of PTM. Since, the PTM has evolved into a political party. Its list of demands included the removal of mines, checkpoints and the return of missing persons from the tribal areas. 

Led by Manzoor Pashteen, the PTM has held several successful rallies across Pakistan, with its members Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir also being elected to the National Assembly in the 2018 General Elections.

On July 20, the tribal region held elections in 16 constituencies. The polls were contested by candidates from the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl, Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, and the PTM.

Just like the General Elections, there were widespread allegations of the establishment influencing the polling process. Critics argued that the PTM was especially marginalized, given the arrests of Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir before polling. Dawar and Wazir had been arrested following a clash in Kharqamar area of North Waziristan between the Army officials and PTM protestors on May 26.

That clash between the Army officials and participants of the PTM rally is emblematic of the double-edged sword that military operations in the tribal areas present. Despite the reduction in terror incidents, the manner in which the military operations have been carried out in the region has invited criticism from various political leaders, activists and others.

Critics argue that despite the state’s self-congratulatory PR campaign over the reduction in terror attacks in the tribal areas, there isn’t enough recognition of, let alone action over, the fact that the military operations have also resulted in the displacement of over a million people from the former FATA. 

Meanwhile, as the state looks to silence criticism of its military operations in the tribal areas, the TTP appears to have resurfaced in North Waziristan. Observers find a strategic connection between the TTP’s return to the limelight and the state’s plans for the tribal areas.

With Prime Minister Khan vowing to help the United States deal with the Afghan Taliban during his meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump in July and September, the resurfacing of the TTP could see the return of the group, recycled as a strategic asset in the power corridor that connects to Kabul.

Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, believes that regardless of the mainstreaming of the former FATA, the tribal areas “will be run as per the will of the forces that be.”

“There is nothing odd about [the TTP resurfacing in the tribal areas] because that’s a relationship that [the] Pakistan military has always had. The PTM was constantly trying to draw attention towards this,” she said.

“The Taliban are there because the Army has allowed it. I fear the day Americans leave the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan. Pakistan will suffer the most,” she added.

Tribal activist and blogger Mona Aurangzeb maintains that TTP cells have always been in the region.

“They continue to get the needed strategic support. Yes, the PTM challenged the strategic space and status of the tribal areas, and [as a result] the TTP were pushed back. [Yet] the area continues to be a space for all proxy wars like Afghanistan and in future maybe Kashmir,” she said.   

“As we can see from the development in regional politics [that] the American good guys are now the Taliban. The TTP will be instrumental in future Afghan settlement too,” Aurangzeb added.

Others argue that while the TTP’s rise is linked to the Afghan peace process, it is actually the Afghan Taliban who have influenced the rise of the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas.

“The TTP is targeting Pakistani Army personnel in the tribal areas. They are being bolstered by the Afghan Taliban, who want to show their power in territories on both side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to influence the current negotiations with the U.S.,” said a senior Army official posted in the tribal areas.

“Also, the Islamist State’s presence in the region is largely made up of former Pakistan Taliban splinter groups. By propping up the TTP, the Afghan Taliban want to weaken [ISIS] as well, and tell Washington that they are the only group that needs to be kept in mind while discussing the future for Afghanistan,” the official added.

Lieutenant-General Talat Masood, former secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production, says the TTP leadership is based in Afghanistan and enjoys the “direct or indirect” patronage of the Afghan Taliban.

“The Pakistani Taliban are enjoying support and security in Afghanistan. The TTP will increase its presence in the tribal areas – which they are literally governing – and will target other areas of Pakistan as well,” he said.

“[Hence], it’s not in the interests of Pakistan to support the Afghan Taliban. They shouldn’t let the Afghan Taliban become a dominant presence in Afghanistan, because that will have serious ramifications for Pakistan. [The TTP’s reemergence] is evidence of that,” he added.