Nearly two decades of conflict nears an end with the beginning of the first formal intra-Afghan talks in Doha. But regional peace remains at risk as warring factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) reunited on Afghan soil with an agenda to intensify violence back home.
“It is a worrying development for Pakistan,” says Kamran Yousaf, a journalist who has covered the peace deal extensively. He wants to wait and see whether the reunification can change ground realities.
“To be sure, so long as the war still rages in Afghanistan, the TTP will always be an option to partner on some attacks with the Afghan Taliban,” says Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center.
“The TTP continues to have Pakistan in its crosshairs and the fact that the group has recently started deepening its footprint in the Pakistani tribal areas, even as it remains based in Afghanistan, attests to the priority it accords to targeting Pakistan.”
How It All Began
A loosely-knit conglomerate of militant outfits came together in 2003 under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud in response to the Pakistani military’s growing footprint in the U.S. “war on terror.” It gained ground in the semi-autonomous tribal districts and made its way throughout Pakistan, carrying out numerous deadly attacks.
Jamshed Bhagwan, a journalist covering war and conflict in the region, notes that the TTP may be inspired by the Afghan Taliban, but their philosophy is poles apart. Where the Afghan Taliban formed in response to the mujahideen’s mishandled rule in Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation and solidified in the last 19 years in resistance to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, the TTP’s doctrine has varied with every new leader.
“There are more self-interests but no significant goal,” Bhagwan explains. “It is a locally-grown outfit retaliating against [the] Pakistani state preventing them from joining the Afghan war. Backed by India and other anti-Pakistan elements, they create disruptions across the country.”
Marred by internal rifts, the militant outfit was dismantled by a series of military operations by the Pakistani military that forced its remnants into hiding or seeking refuge across the border.
With no consensual leadership, factions of the TTP began pledging allegiance to the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) until the Afghan Taliban crushed them in Afghanistan and re-emerged as the dominant non-governmental force in the country.
Many an attempt to reunite the TPP has failed over the years — until peace emerged as an option in Afghanistan, with Pakistan helping bring the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban to the table.
Islamabad has always linked peace on its soil with a political settlement of violence and bloodshed across the border. It has also not shied away from pointing fingers at Kabul for harboring elements that threaten Pakistan’s stability. A 2019 U.S. State Department report estimated the TTP to have 3,000 to 5,000 members, many living on Afghan soil.
Reportedly, Islamabad demanded a weakening of anti-Pakistan elements including militant and sectarian outfits on Afghan soil for the peace deal to go through. In early February, the Hakimullah Mehsud group’s chief Shehryar Mehsud was killed in an IED blast in Kunar. Days later, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signed an agreement in Doha.
Back in the TTP camp, survival instincts took over as the militant outfit reunited under its silent firebrand leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, alias Abu Mansoor Asim. For Bhagwan, former TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan’s escape from Pakistani custody accelerated the process.
Noor Wali, who hails from South Waziristan’s Gurguray village, was a student at a seminary in Punjab’s industrial hub of Faisalabad before moving to the port city of Karachi in Sindh. In his autobiography, the 43-year-old says he was unable to hold himself back when he heard of the Taliban losses at the hands of the Northern Alliance in Jabal Al Saraj and Mazar-e-Sharif. But within two months, he was back in Pakistan.
Shortly after 9/11, Noor Wali made his way back to Jalalabad when the U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan. His alliance with the TTP can be traced back to 2003, when he was invited to a meeting by the Mehsud Taliban.
Capitalizing on his experience and relationships beyond the Mehsud tribe, Noor Wali realigned the militant outfit while simultaneously reining in elements from sectarian outfits including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) led by Maulvi Khush Muhammad Sindhi and the Farooq Group of al-Qaida in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
Noor Wali’s allegiance to Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada and good relations with the outfit allows his faction to expect leniency. The fate of other splinter groups such as the Omar Khalid Khorasani-led Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Hizb-ulAhrar (HuA) led by Maulvi Qasim hangs in balance as they expect militant action by the Afghan Taliban.
In a nutshell, aligning with the Noor Wali-led TTP offers protection to JuA, HuA, LeJ, and other smaller factions. Alternatively, a single front stands a much better chance against the formidable Afghan Taliban.
“These are survival tactics,” said a Pakistani security official. Speaking to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, he explained that it was a win-win situation for the splinter groups.
“Anti-Pakistan elements would be able to maintain a threat to Pakistan. While the TTP will get bigger clout and resources, the HuA and JuA will get shelter against the Afghan Taliban who will be facing one single-entity instead of many small groups.”
However, Kugelman believes the resurgence and reunification of the TTP is driven more by tribal dynamics and the group’s internal politics than by peace talks in Afghanistan. He says Noor Wali succeeded in bringing back into the fold a number of factions that had split off because of opposition to his predecessor, Mullah Fazlullah – an outsider to the Mehsud tribe. “This effort by Noor Wali had been making progress for quite some time, and on a timeline separate from the Afghan peace process,” he adds.
The Bigger Picture
The U.S.-Taliban agreement enlists the Afghan Taliban in ensuring no militant group, including the TTP, is allowed to operate from Afghan soil.
Bhagwan believes the TTP’s reunification is more focused on Afghanistan than Pakistan. “The TTP believes that the Afghan Taliban will be the strongest force in Afghanistan once the U.S. and its allies’ pullout from the region. And they want a piece of that pie.”
Kugelman says that although the reunited TTP is allied both ideologically and operationally with the Afghan Taliban, it would be wrong to view it as a junior partner to its Afghan counterpart. “The TTP is focused on its targeting of Pakistan while the Afghan Taliban is allied with Islamabad and focuses its militancy exclusively in Afghanistan.”
“The idea of the Afghan Taliban serving as a TTP protector or benefactor may be misguided,” says Kugelman. “The two largely do their own respective things, driven by quite different objectives, and they work together operationally in Afghanistan only at certain times, when doing so serves its interests.”
“I doubt Afghan Taliban will risk patronage to the TTP knowing well they need Pakistan’s support after the U.S. pullout,” says Yousaf.
Previously, the TTP factions have defied the Afghan Taliban’s decrees against carrying out terrorist attacks in Pakistan. “They act independently,” says Bhagwan. But, he pointed out, the Afghan Taliban hadn’t used military action to uproot the TTP either. “Let’s see what the new policy is.”
The End of Violence?
As the militant outfits reunite under the umbrella of Noor Wali – a devoted adherent of Akhundzada – a daunting question arises on the influence of the Afghan Taliban to guide peace on Pakistani soil.
Many local peace agreements have been inked with the TTP but they are easily violated when a new commander takes over. “The Pakistani state doesn’t need to hold formal peace talks because as far as they are concerned, they have successfully dismantled the militant outfit,” says Bhagwan. “When the foot soldiers reach out through tribal elders, the state offers pardon.”
Pakistan is already feeling the brunt of the reunification with terror-related incidents in Waziristan. Still, “things are not the same” as during the group’s heyday, says Bhagwan.
“There is a strong military presence in the area and the surveillance system will not allow TTP to regroup. There is also public resistance. People take to social media to exert pressure to root out militancy. The TTP will not be able to bear local pressure.
“It is unlikely that they would be able to carry out large-scale attacks in Pakistan.”
Yousaf says the intra-Afghan talks won’t conclude without the Afghan Taliban and other key players committing to deal with the TTP and other anti-Pakistan elements. The “Afghan Taliban are far more formidable than the TTP,” observes Yousaf. “While the Afghan Taliban resisted U.S. military might for almost two decades, TTP was decimated by Pakistani military at least from its soil.”
“A peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan would not lead to the same with the Taliban in Pakistan,” insists Kugelman.
“Just because the Afghan Taliban ends its fight against Kabul wouldn’t mean the TTP would lay down arms — and that’s because the TTP is fighting against Islamabad.”
“And in fact, a peace deal in Afghanistan could embolden the TTP to ramp up its fight in Pakistan — to the extent that its limited strength allows it to do so because it would no longer be thinking about operational partnerships with the Afghan Taliban against Kabul,” Kugelman explains.
“That said, an Afghan peace deal could also prompt a post-war government, one that would likely include the Taliban, to crack down on the TTP in Afghanistan – or at the least to not go out of its way to help it.”