The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has announced that the organization’s two major splinter groups, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar, have joined its ranks again. This is not a small achievement for a militant organization that has been on the run for years and trying to survive in a highly competitive militant landscape.
The timing of the merger is significant. In the past, all groups associated with the TTP have easily found sanctuaries in Afghanistan, recruited and imported fighters and made local and transnational alliances. However, going forward, that may not remain the case anymore.
Over the years, internal feuds have resulted in the death of hundreds of Taliban fighters. There have been active attempts from different rival factions to win over the leadership of the movement. For instance, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) was founded by many estranged TTP fighters who had little or no connection with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Consequently, ISKP’s fighters in Afghanistan mainly comprise of former TTP fighters.
The intra-Afghan talks are expected to begin soon in Afghanistan. Assuming they do, one of the major political stakeholders in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban, is likely to come out with major gains from the talks. These likely gains may see the group back in power with more stakes in keeping stability and control over smaller militant organizations. Therefore, it’s in the interest of all intra-Afghan stakeholders, including the Afghan Taliban, that militant groups such as the ISKP and TTP do not actively pitch Afghan soil as a supplier of vast sanctuaries to target neighboring states.
A recent United Nations(UN) report warned that around 6,000 to 6,500 Pakistani terrorists are operating from their bases in Afghanistan. For instance, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar have a strong presence in the Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan. The reintegration of these groups into TTP offers the organization a strong sanctuary at a time when it is likely to face a tough situation in Afghanistan.
Thus, the fate of the intra-Afghan talks will have a significant impact on the fate of terrorists operating in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, including TTP and other smaller groups. It is possible that the conclusion of the peace talks will see a wider and cohesive action against militant groups that have previously found sanctuaries in Afghanistan with little effort.
A unified TTP with a strong foothold in Afghanistan and thousands of fighters is the last thing Pakistan is expected to accept when the intra-Afghan talks conclude. Islamabad should be expected to use its leverage with the Americans and the Afghan Taliban to push for the expulsion of the TTP from Afghanistan in the incoming intra-Afghan talks. A growing string of international sanctions on the current leadership of the TTP is possibly a reflection of Pakistan’s pressure via its participation in the Afghan peace process.
However, that is not to say that the Afghan Taliban will be accommodating of Pakistan’s requests. “I believe its [TTP] political consolidation and resurgence has implications for Pakistan’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban with which TTP is still allied,” said Asfandyar Mir. This essentially means that TTP’s consolidation does not only have the potential to complicate Pakistan’s Afghan policy and its relationship with the Afghan Taliban, but may also undermine the intra-Afghan phase of the peace process. At this point, any actor, including Pakistan, can play the role of a spoiler if they don’t see the end result of the intra-Afghan dialogue meeting their expectations.
Currently, there is no clarity on the Afghan Taliban’s links with the TTP. There is no evidence to suggest that the Afghan Taliban has been assisting the TTP in their operations against the Pakistani state. We do not know if the Afghan Taliban will defend or oppose TTP’s sanctuaries in Afghanistan after the conclusion of the Afghan peace process.
On the part of the TTP, the unification is a smart move to put pressure on the Afghan Taliban as well. “TTP has separated itself from ISKP, which will come under the pump for being a transnational group. In doing so, they have saved their residual organizational strength to continue operating from Afghanistan while focusing on Pakistan,” Abdul Basit, research fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) told The Diplomat. In the past, some TTP leaders have remained associated with the ISKP which complicated the group’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban. By completely delinking with the ISKP, TTP has made it difficult for Afghan Taliban to take an opposing position against them, which has been easy in the case of ISKP.
Perhaps, for all TTP factions, uniting to ensure survival may have been the deciding factor in these recent mergers. “The way I see it is that the consolidation, or rather the re-consolidation of the two splinter groups back into the TTP fold is a sign of weakness both in resources and men,” Dr. Claude Rakisits told The Diplomat.
Another important factor explaining the merger is linked to the leadership claim of the organization. Since the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, the movement has faced serious internal divisions, mainly on the question of leadership. TTP’s “original split was not really ideological but operational and due to personalities clash, and this unification is a confirmation of this,” said Rakisits.
The appointment of an emir from outside the Mehsud tribe was the key reason for the split of the organization in the first place. In early 2014, a group named Ahrar-ul-Hind split from the TTP. In May 2014, the Mehsud faction of the TTP left the group and formed its own organization, known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban South Waziristan. “The TTP leadership has fallen into the hands of a bunch of conspirators, the umbrella organization is involved in criminal activities like robbery and extortion,” said Azim Tariq Mehsud, the spokesperson of the Mehsud faction in a statement in 2014.
With TTP leadership going back to the Mehsud tribe, the possibility of the group’s unification was always there. This is not a small achievement for TTP’s current head, Noor Wali Mehsud, who has been on a campaign to reunify all major factions of the group. The development also confirms that the Mehsud faction of the TTP continue to hold a key to the TTP’s survival and integration.
TTP’s current leadership may have made serious concessions to bring back Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar into its fold. It is unlikely that these groups are going to completely abandon their individual organizational identities regardless of what the union’s optics may present for propaganda consumption.
At this point, there is no evidence to suggest that this unification is going to last. For instance, the death of the current TTP head could very well start another round of controversy among the key factions of the organization leading to splits again. This is something that Pakistan’s military and the government should be expected to be aware of.
While explaining if the unification of all major TTP factions poses a threat to Pakistan’s security, Rakisits said that “I suspect it will not make too much of a difference. One needs to remember that the Pakistani military now has some 15 years’ worth of experience in fighting these non-state actors who have progressively lost more and more ground and men to the Pakistani army.” However, there have been reports of TTP moving its fighters to Waziristan. A recent spike in the attacks on Pakistani security forces in the tribal areas should be a cause of concern for Islamabad.
The return of the TTP fighters back to Waziristan will complicate the tribal belt’s security woes. Already, there are reports of some fighters being allowed back by the Pakistani state under some reconciliation deal. The merger “puts in sharp focus Pakistan’s questionable policy of allowing some TTP operatives to return to North and South Waziristan This reunification can lead to these fighters considering retuning back to militancy again,” said Basit.