Six years after their defeat, the once-dreaded Pakistani Taliban have staged a gradual comeback in their former territories in Waziristan, the rugged tribal region bordering Afghanistan, by carrying out targeted killings, attacking Pakistani security forces, kidnapping government officials, and collecting protection money from local businessmen and government contractors.
The visible uptick in Taliban attacks over the past year in north and south Waziristan is believed to be the result of the re-unification and merger of several Taliban factions and splinters in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a loose alliance of militant groups founded by the then-Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud in 2007.
Baitullah Mehsud, a veteran of the Afghan “jihad,” was killed in a drone strike in August 2009 and was replaced by Hakimullah Mehsud, another ruthless commander from the Mehsud clan, as the group’s new leader. However, Hakimullah Mehsud’s killing, also in a drone strike, in November 2013 opened cracks in the TTP alliance.
Several factions parted ways with the TTP following the appointment of Mullah Fazlullah, a non-Mehsud and non-tribal, as head of the banned militant group. Already weakened by its internal rifts and the separation of various factions and splinters, the TTP received what was perceived as a final blow when Pakistan launched a massive military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, in June 2014.
The TTP leadership fled across the border to hide in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan. The Taliban under Fazlullah struggled for survival. However, Fazlullah’s death in June 2018, also in a drone strike, once again returned the TTP leadership to the Mehsud Taliban.
Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, who is considered a writer and strategist rather than a hardened fighter, focused on bringing the various factions together under the TTP umbrella again over the next two years.
Besides his re-unification efforts, Mufti moved the TTP headquarters from eastern Afghanistan – Kunar and Nangarhar provinces – to the southeast in Paktika province, where the remote Bermal district provides his men easy access across the border into the former TTP stronghold of south Waziristan.
Being a Mehsud himself, Mufti Noor Wali not only managed to bring in the Mehsud factions of the TTP, but also win over the support of Taliban from Mohmand, Bajaur, and other tribal districts, besides bringing in groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban.
In July and August 2020, a Taliban spokesman announced the merger of the Amjad Farouqi group and one faction of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi under the commander of Maulvi Khush Muhammad Sindhi, in the TTP.
In November 2020, the TTP claimed the joining of Maulvi Aleem Khan, another Waziristan-based commander, along with nine commanders, while the same month, another TTP pamphlet suggested that Umar Izzam, known as Ghazi Umar Izzam, from Miami tribe joined the TTP along with his group “Musa Shaheed Karwan.”
The biggest success for the TTP under Mufti, however, was the rejoining of two strong factions – Jamat ul Ahrar (JuA) under Omar Khalid Khorasani and Hezb ul Ahar (HeA) of Omar Khorasani – in August 2020. The JuA is a breakaway faction of the TTP, while the HuA is a splinter of the JuA. Both operate in the Mohmand tribal district and the separation came as a result of the TTP leadership rivalries that followed the death of Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013.
It was the JuA faction of the TTP under Omar Khalid Khorasani that carried out the February 2016 Easter Sunday terrorist attack in Lahore, which killed around 75 and injured about 350 people, mostly women and children.
The re-emergence and re-unification of the Pakistani Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region is of deep concern not just for Pakistan but also for Afghanistan, India, China, and the United States, which is struggling to end its two-decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is already reeling from Taliban violence while India is facing a jihadist threat in the part of Kashmir under the Indian control. The multi-headed monster may also affect China, given the country’s very visible presence and huge investments in Pakistan. In addition, the TTP still has connections with Uyghurs, some of which migrated to Afghanistan from Waziristan in the aftermath of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014.
The TTP has also expanded its financial resources, with local sources suggesting that group is levying taxes on contractors working on developmental projects such as road construction and the building of schools and hospitals in Waziristan and the adjacent districts.
According to local sources, the Taliban charge 5 percent of the total amounts of contracts from local contractors in Waziristan. The group has recently expanded its extortion network to the neighboring district of Tank and the more distant city of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial capital.
Image building is another area for the re-organized TTP leadership and unlike his predecessors, Mufti Noor Wali regularly issues pamphlets and statements. Some use nationalist slogans to win the support of his fellow tribesmen.
In one recent Urdu-language statement, when the government security agencies issued a threat warning in February 2021 asking pro-government elders, government officials, and journalists to beware of Taliban attacks, a TTP spokesman quickly reacted, mocking the government for being “unable to ensure safety of its citizens.”
In the same statement, the TTP spokesman said “we would like to inform the people of Waziristan along with other Pakistanis that we are not targeting the common people.” This is in contrast with the polices of the previous TTP chiefs who cared less for the safety of civilians.
Mufti Noor Wali has closer links with the Afghan Taliban, leaders of the Haqqani Network, and remnants of al-Qaeda in the border region. This is in contrast with his predecessor Fazlullah, who was believed to be closer to the Afghan security agencies.
It was Mufti’s closer links with the Haqqanis and Afghan Taliban that, according to an unofficial source, prompted Pakistani security agencies to contact him to start peace talks and put an end to the violence. The source said that while the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban may advise the TTP leadership to declare a ceasefire, they can not and would not force him to accept their advice.
Although the TTP has yet to prove its presence in the cities, its increasing attacks in Waziristan are reminiscent of its 2007 emergence in the tribal region and their gradual expansion to cities.
Another worrying aspect of the TTP’s re-emergence is the Afghanistan end game. Regardless of whether the Afghan government and the Taliban agree on a durable peace deal or the situation worsens in the case of no deal, the Pakistani Taliban will find solid ground for maintaining their presence and expanding their operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
The Pakistani Taliban will be encouraged and inspired to continue their militancy in case the Afghan Taliban, as is expected by some, manages to score a significant role in Afghanistan’s future governments. However, the continuation of the Afghan insurgency, in the case of no deal, would be equally inspirational for TTP fighters and commanders mainly because they will continue to find a cause for their “jihad.”
The last time Pakistan struck a serious blow to the TTP was June 2014’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb which pushed the militants out of the tribal areas and shattered their command and control structure. However, that push incurred heavy losses on the tribal people as over a million were displaced and their properties and businesses were destroyed.
Many of those tribesmen still live outside their home areas and hold protest demonstrations demanding compensation for their losses. The re-emergence of the Taliban in areas promised to have been cleared of militants is a source of serious concern.
Despite rendering huge sacrifices as a frontline state in the global war against terrorism, Pakistan has earned a bad name for what is called a “double game” by the country’s security agencies concerning the Taliban.
At a time when international forces are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, critics believe the re-emergence of Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas points to a new twist in Pakistan’s Taliban policy.
Pakistan won a hard battle against the TTP, sacrificing thousands of lives and suffering huge financial losses. The Taliban’s return would not only spoil those gains, but also damage the trust in state power that was restored by defeating Taliban in the region.