Last week, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) announced its withdrawal from a month long ceasefire agreement with the government, accusing Islamabad of reneging on its promise to release a number of TTP prisoners, while also accusing the government of conducting raids and arrests in TTP strongholds.
Following the end of the ceasefire, the group promised a return to violence. True to its word, attacks on security personal intensified across the country, including an attack on two police providing security for polio vaccination workers in northwest Pakistan, shooting and killing one and wounding the other.
The TTP has waged an insurgent campaign in the country since it was founded in 2007 after the Pakistan military stormed a mosque complex and known hotbed of extremist sentiments. From 2007, the group carried out a number of deadly attacks on Pakistani soil, targeting political leaders, civilians and security forces, often using improvised explosive device (IED)s. One of the deadliest attacks occurred in 2014 when TTP militants attacked an army-run school in Peshawar, killing over 150, the majority children.
The latest ceasefire, negotiated by the Afghan Taliban, is the first since 2014 when a major army offensive drove the group across the border into Afghanistan. Despite carrying out sporadic, low-level attacks, the TTP remained politically weak and rife with internal divisions.
A revival of fortunes
In recent years, the TTP has undergone a resurgence under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud. following the assassination of his predecessor, Maulana Fazlullah, in a U.S. drone strike in 2018. Mehsud expanded the operations from eastern Afghanistan to South-eastern Afghanistan. In an interview with CCN, Mehsud called for an independent state in Pakistan’s tribal areas, marking a strategic shift away one of the group’s long-stated objectives, to implement its own version of Islamic law across the country, towards a more locally rooted agenda.
Operationally, Mehsud has been able to reunite a number of splinter group under the TTP umbrella, including Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Hizb-ulAhrar (HuA). Mehsud was also bolstered by the return to power of the Afghan Taliban which provided the TTP with an opportunity to solidify its position in Afghanistan, where the bulk of the TTP leadership remain. Any military offensive against the group would have to take place in Afghanistan, an unlikely option for Islamabad.
With a rising sense of military fatigue in the country, Islamabad remains committed to a diplomatic solution. Its policy of trying to negotiate with the more reconcilable elements within the TTP has so far proved unsuccessful and domestically unpopular, with many angered by the government’s willingness to talk. Persuading the group to lay down arms remains a tall order, but not an impossible one. While resurgent, the group remains weaker than in previous years, suggesting it would have greater incentive to stop fighting if it’s offered enough in return. The group has also adopted a more moderate posture, minimizing ties to other extremist groups and stopping attacks on civilians. This also suggests it may be ready to downgrade its fight.
At present, the group is restricting its attacks to western Pakistan, mainly in the KPK province. If the calculus changes, the TTP could become a political liability for Prime Minister Imran Khan. As such, Islamabad may turn to the Taliban in Afghanistan to put pressure on the TTP to curb attacks. Despite separate command and operational structures, both groups remain closely allied. Many senior TTP fighters–including top leaders like Baitullah Mehsud–originally fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, while TTP fighters later aided the Taliban’s fight against US-led NATO forces after 2001. Any Taliban actions directed at the TTP are unlikely to go down well with the Taliban rank and file, and they could add to the internal divides within the group–a big worry for the top leadership.
The Taliban won’t want to give the impression that it’s doing Pakistan’s bidding,“ says Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre. “Pakistan may be the Taliban’s patron, but the Taliban isn’t as dependent on the Pakistanis as it used to be, because the war is over, and it doesn’t need cross-border sanctuaries. So, Pakistan has lost leverage, and the Taliban can assert more independence. The Taliban is keen to show that it’s not Pakistan’s proxy–hence the angry, anti-Pakistan messaging from several Taliban leaders in recent days.”
China also shares an important stake in Pakistan’s stability, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) serving as the “flagship project” of its Belt and Road Initiative. Attacks have taken place against China’s projects and personnel in the country in an effort to increase pressure on the Pakistan government. China has courted closer ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan in recent years and could seek a quid pro quo, security guarantees in exchange for much needed investment. The Taliban has repeatedly stated its openness to Chinese investment and is likely to be receptive to Chinese concerns.
Yet, while the TTP remains a threat, Beijing is primarily concerned with the ETIM – a militant Uighur separatist group seeking an independent state of East Turkestan. According to an interview in the Global Times with the Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson Suhail Shaheen, many ETIM members had left Afghanistan after the Taliban made it clear that Afghanistan would not allow terrorists to operate within the country. While Chinese workers are getting hit in Pakistan, it’s typically Baloch separatists and not the TTP that’s behind those attacks.
If the TTP ramps up its attacks, the government will come under increasing pressure to find a solution. With the Afghan Taliban unlikely or unwilling to and China preoccupied with its own, separate security fears, Islamabad may have to deal with problem on its own.