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Inter-group Militant Cooperation and Rivalries in Pakistan’s Newly Merged Districts

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The Pulse | Security | South Asia

Inter-group Militant Cooperation and Rivalries in Pakistan’s Newly Merged Districts

ISKP has survived the hostile environment of the NMDs through alliances with like-minded groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jandullah.

Inter-group Militant Cooperation and Rivalries in Pakistan’s Newly Merged Districts

In this Aug. 3, 2021 file photo, Pakistan Army troops observe the area from hilltop post on the Pakistan Afghanistan, in Khyber district, Pakistan.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File

Paradoxically, inter-group militant cooperation and rivalries are directly proportional to militancy’s longevity and lethality. This is exemplified in Pakistan’s Newly Merged Districts (NMDs), which border Afghanistan, where inter-group alliances and rivalries have contributed to the expansion of the operational strengths and lifespans of militant networks.

Pakistani security institutions will have to understand the patterns in inter-group militant alliances and rivalries in the NMDs to formulate effective counterterrorism strategies against these groups.

Inter-group militant cooperation refers to “joint complementary actions for the same (intermediate) purpose.” They occur when the benefits outweigh the costs. For inter-group cooperation to achieve lethality and longevity certain conditions must be met. For instance, cooperating groups should have similar ideological outlooks and objectives. Likewise, militant groups should be located in geographically contiguous conflict theaters where they can freely interact and form bonds of trust.  Similarly, they should have the same patron that would act as a guarantor and enforcer in the inter-group militant alliances. Also, such cooperative ties work only for inter-group, not intra-group, alliance formations. Finally, the militant landscape in which such alliances occur should be multi-actor and competitive.

If the above conditions are met, inter-group militant cooperation will help organizations in resource aggregation, carrying out joint attacks and expanding their operational outreach. Likewise, they will help a group balance against an external aggressor, whether a rival militant group or a state, and assist groups in surviving. Generally, smaller groups seek alliances with larger groups.

Inter-group cooperation has two main forms — high-end and low-end cooperation. The former involves mergers and strategic alliances, while the latter comprises tactical and transactional partnerships. Mergers involve full-spectrum cooperation where groups give up their independence and become one organization. In such instances, the trust level is very high and alliances are long-lasting. Groups entering into a merger give up their command and control, insignias, and finances, and adopt those of the larger group.

Although the trust level is very high in strategic alliances, the scope of cooperation is limited. Moreover, groups entering into strategic alliances retain their independence. It bears mention that long-lasting strategic alliances can morph into potential mergers.

Meanwhile, low-end cooperation involves tactical and transactional ties where trust levels and scope of alliances are extremely narrow. Such cooperative ties emerge when groups have some transitory, overlapping interests, such as fighting a common enemy. In tactical partnerships, groups figure out specific areas of cooperation and can end such arrangements as and when required. Finally, transactional alliances can be instances of one-off cooperation where one group provides material support, and shares expertise or information in return for a favor from the other group.

Similarly, inter-group rivalries push militant organizations to innovate, learn new skills and adapt to evolving environments to survive. In doing so, they become street-smart, battle-hardened, and able to cope with challenging circumstances. In hostile conditions, only the most resilient survive and excel, others perish. A terrorist group’s size and age are directly proportional to its rivalries: the larger a group’s size and the longer it lives, the greater the chances of its antagonism with others.

In the NMDs, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has absorbed more than 46 militant factions since July 2020, adding to its operational and organizational strength. Two main factors have enabled these mergers. First, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has created a permissible environment for these groups to co-exist and forge bonds of trust and camaraderie.

The second factor is the leadership of Nur Wali Mehsud, who since becoming the TTP’s emir has focused on two things, stitching the group’s internal differences and forging alliances with other like-minded groups. As a result, the TTP has not only become more lethal but also it has transformed into a long-lasting threat to Pakistan’s internal security. Currently, the TTP is trying to evolve from a terrorist to an insurgent group, but the lack of territorial control and public support has hindered its efforts. In its current incarnation, it can be referred to as a proto-insurgent or a hybrid terrorist group.

The most prominent example of strategic cooperation in the NMDs is joint attacks and discussions of a possible merger between the TTP and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group. Both groups want to create a Taliban-like theological state in Pakistan and share their enmity against the Pakistani state as well as enjoy the patronage of the Afghan Taliban.

In the last 18 months, the two groups have carried out 12 joint attacks in the NMDs and different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, pointing to their strategic alliance against a common foe. Likewise, both groups are discussing the possibility of a potential merger. In case of a merger, the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group, being the smaller entity, would merge into the TTP.

Likewise, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has survived in the hostile environment of the NMDs by leveraging its alliances with like-minded groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jandullah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, etc. These alliances allowed ISKP to survive the Afghan Taliban’s crackdown, U.S. airstrikes, and the ground offensives of the former regime in Kabul.

Concurrently, its rivalry with the Taliban and the TTP has compelled ISKP to evolve its organizational structure from a centralized to a decentralized group, shift its focus from holding territory to conducting attacks and keep repositioning its propaganda narrative with the changing operational environment. For instance, as soon as the Taliban took over in Kabul, ISKP sharpened its anti-Taliban narrative, blamed the latter for abandoning jihad by signing a deal (the Doha Accord 2020) with the United States, and portrayed itself as the true jihadist group in Afghanistan. This narrative not only helped ISKP maintain relevance but also gain an edge in the propaganda warfare against the Taliban.

In sum, shifting alliances and rivalries in the NMDs have rendered its landscape highly volatile and competitive. To counter the ever-evolving militant threat, Pakistan’s security managers will have to understand inter-group militant alliances and rivalries.

At the same time, without undermining the Taliban’s patronage of the TTP and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group, and the conducive environment Afghanistan is offering these groups, overcoming their cooperative partnerships will be easier said than done.