Tehreek-i-Taliban-i-Pakistan has not an easy go

By K N Pandita

A by-product of Al Qaeda, the TTP claims that its armed struggle aims at establishing an Islamic political system in Pakistan based on the group’s interpretation of sharia, a task it says was the main goal for establishing Pakistan in 1947.

In July 2020 ten militant groups opposed to the Pakistani state merged with the TTP, including, among others, three Pakistani affiliates of al-Qaeda and four major factions that had separated from the TTP in 2014. Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 20212 has been a strong morale booster for the TTP. According to the UN, the TTP also boasts several thousand fighters (4,000 to 10,000) in Afghanistan, with strongholds on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

TTP’s links not only with the Afghan Taliban and the Al Qaeda but also with the Islamic State in Khurasan Province (ISKP) are known to all. It is formed of the previously disgruntled members of TTP. According to a U.S. intelligence assessment, the ISKP could be capable of mounting an attack in the West, including in the United States. Any alliance between the TTP and the ISKP could strengthen the ISKP and worsen the threat it poses beyond the region.

In 2001, General Musharraf of Pakistan announced his country would be on the side of the US in war against terror. Many Pakistani jihadists who had fought on behalf of the Pakistani government in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir turned against the Pakistani state for its support to the United States’ so-called global war on terror, among other grievances. Reacting to Pak government’s pro-American decision, TTP members offered shelter to the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militant allies who were fleeing the conflict in Afghanistan.

American sleuths had no difficulty in finding that the fleeing Al Qaeda activists and their Afghan affiliates were provided shelter by the PTT. Under American pressure, the Pakistan government cracked down on the jihadists but only to strengthen their resolve of forging close connectivity among all jihadist groups. In 2007, the firmly committed and fully armed group of anti-Pakistan orientation came to be formed in the Waziristan region of NWFP of Pakistan.

At its inception, the TTP declared that Taliban leader Mullah Omar was its spiritual leader and waved to follow in the Afghan Taliban’s footsteps and establish a sharia system in Pakistan, freeing the country from the “American stooges” who supposedly governed it.

In the initial stages, TTP was faced with two challenges; first, it had to lay the foundation of the anti-state jihadi war front in Pakistan and second, it needed to override religious-political parties advocating non-militancy for a sharia-led Pakistan State. Pakistan’s state-sponsored Jihadi groups were fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The source of legitimacy for TTP was its objective of fighting the Pakistan government for supporting the US in anti-Al Qaeda and Taliban organizations. It was this self-forged sense of legitimacy that had motivated the anti-Pak state outfits to assassinate Benazir Bhutto. “Pakistani Pashtuns tribesmen as well as Deobandi and Salafist seminaries, Islamist parties, and other jihadi groups all supported the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency against the United States and its allies, seeing the campaign as a legitimate jihad to expel foreign infidels,” wrote Abdul Sayed in ‘The Evolution and Future of TTP’ (Carnegie Endowment, Dec 21, 2021).

Taliban takeover of Afghanistan shored up TTP’s resurgence to achieve its core objective of dismantling Pakistan’s Pro-US structure. Between 2007 and 2015, thousands of Pakistanis had perished in the Pak army-TTP battles. Since Pakistan considered Taliban victory in Afghanistan its strategic achievement, the TTP took Pakistan’s glorification of the Taliban a shot in the arm.

The TTP Manifesto of 2018 disallowed attacks on civilians and declared that Pakistan’s security and intelligence personnel would be its exclusive targets. This might have been necessitated by the adverse reaction in the international community against the civilian killings including hundreds of school-going children by the TTP which had said that it was retaliating to the terror let loose by the Zarb-e-Azab operation of the Pakistan army. According to the Institute of Peace Pakistan in 2021, there was an increase of 42% TTP attacks against the attacks in 2020. In these attacks, 335 lives were lost. There was an increase of 84 percent in the TTP attacks in 2021 in comparison to 2020. TTP alone was responsible for 87 attacks, an increase of 84% against 2020.

TTP attacks during 2021 were carried out mostly in the remote localities. Very little information trickled down to the mainstream media. Moreover, as a result of the changed tactics of the Pakistan army, strict censure had been imposed on media and news on TTP attacks was not easily available. All that the journalist gathered is the weaving together of bits of analysis or shortened news that comes from the source of politicians in an oblique statement. The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) arm of Pakistan’s military, obliquely released some news which Pakistani media then tended to reproduce.

In a televised interview in October last, PM Imran Khan disclosed that “there are different groups which form the TTP and some of them want to talk to our government for peace. So, we are in talks with them. It’s a reconciliation process.” He noted that the talks were taking place in Afghanistan. Earlier Pakistan foreign minister had said in an interview that if the TTP laid down arms and submitted to the constitution of Pakistan the government might consider pardoning them.

This disclosure did not go well with the opposition in the Pakistani Parliament because of a shroud of secrecy worn by the negotiations and the government not sharing consultation with the opposition. Reports trickling down from Pakistani and other sources revealed that the Taliban were playing the mediator role in negotiations between the TTP and Pakistani security officials though the government was loath to come to the forefront. Grapevine has it that the Taliban interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani (head of the Haqqani Network and designated as a terrorist by the United States), was the mediator. The antagonism that had sprung between Siraju’d Din Haqqani and Mullah Baradar at a crucial juncture of forming the Taliban governing structure in Kabul had necessitated an urgent and unscheduled visit of the Pakistani ISI Chief to Kabul.

A month-long ceasefire announced by the government of Pakistan in November did not say anything about the terms and conditions of the deal. Even the baffling issue of the release of hundreds of TTP prisoners did not figure directly anywhere. The cease-fire expired on December 9, and the insurgents immediately resumed their attacks. The ceasefire did not last beyond a month and the ISPR’s head said in January that “some conditions… were non-negotiable from our side so there is no ceasefire right now.” The non-negotiable conditions were (a) imposition of sharia law in Pakistan and (b) release of hundreds of TTP prisoners. Also in January, a former TTP spokesman was killed in Afghanistan under unclear circumstances, leading to speculation of whether Pakistan was involved.

The question is that on the ground there is the Tahreek-i-Labaik-i-Pakistan (TL) also demanding induction of sharia law. This movement is mostly manned by the adherents of the Barelvi School of theology who have, from the very beginning, rejected the use of terror as a policy instrument. Will the TLP extends its support to the TTP or not is not predictable. As far as other armed non-state actors are concerned, of course, they derive their sustenance from the GHQ and they will resist any effort to weaken either the GHQ or the Deep State. How far will the Taliban of Afghanistan contribute to the reconciliation process and to what extent they will be successful is again a moot point? At best the Afghan Taliban wills extend lip service and a few pleasantries to the TTP. The real battle is to be fought between the TTP and the GHQ. As the battle cry becomes shriller, the sharia crusaders will find that the wider Islamic world like the US and the western powers are disposed favourably towards the doublespeak and double standards of the Pakistan army that all rabble-rousers in the mosques and madrasahs.

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