Tehreek-i-Taliban is Making Its Way Back in PakistanSalman Rafi Sheikh | 20 March 2023
Tehreek-i-Taliban’s resurgence reveals the failure of the Pakistan government’s anti-terror policy and its ambivalent, contradictory relationship with Islamist militant groups
According to the January 2023 report of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, the country saw a 27-percent increase in terror attacks in 2022 compared to 2021. The outlawed, Afghanistan-based Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan was a “major actor of violence in the year,” the report stated. A total of 262 attacks took place, which claimed 419 lives and injured 734 people. About 95 percent of the attacks took place in two provinces: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Most of the public analysis of this resurgence in terrorism – especially attacks by militant groups such as the TTP and the Islamic State-Khorasan – explains it as a direct outcome of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021. There is no denying that the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan had a crucial impact – for instance, soon afterwards the Taliban released many senior TTP commanders and fighters from Afghanistan’s jails, allowing the TTP to regroup and reorganise under Noor Wali Mehsud, the current emir of the group. But the fall of Kabul was not the only factor that allowed the TTP to restart its terror campaign in Pakistan. At the heart of the resurgence is a chronology of Pakistan’s disastrous anti-terror policy and decisions.
Contrast this resurgence with Qamar Bajwa’s statement in 2016, back when he was the chief of the Pakistan Army, that the country “has successfully defeated terrorism.” The TTP’s resurgence reveals the stark failure of Pakistan’s entire anti-terror policy, including the many military operations it carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The only result of these was that the TTP, facing the pressure of Pakistan’s military operations, had relocated to Afghanistan.
For decades, Pakistan has been trying to establish an “Islamic” government in Kabul to consolidate its so-called “strategic depth” in Afghanistan – a country that, the theory goes, Pakistan could use as additional territory to relocate its forces in the wake of an Indian invasion of Pakistan. Now that there is an “Islamic” government in Afghanistan, and the same Pakistan-supported government has repeatedly refused to show sensitivity to its neighbour’s interests and eliminate the TTP, there is no hiding the stark failure of Pakistan’s entire “strategic depth” policy.
Taking appeasement to the next level, Pakistan also conveyed in September 2021 its willingness to offer amnesty to the TTP if the group renounced violence and accepted Pakistan’s Constitution.
Pakistan’s failure to convince the Afghan Taliban to act against anti-Pakistan terror groups has led Islamabad to follow a different approach: peace talks with the TTP. But this attempt at detente via appeasement also holds little promise and much peril.
When Pakistan started talks with the TTP soon after the fall of Kabul, the concerned authorities defended the approach by saying that wars could not be fought “infinitely.” This argument is similar to the argument that the United States advanced when it started its “peace talks” with the Afghan Taliban in 2018-19 and subsequently signed the Doha Agreement in early 2020. While the Doha pact did end the US war in Afghanistan, it also brought the Taliban back to power. What Pakistan did not realise was that a similar agreement with the TTP would not simply end the war but also make the group much more powerful.
For decades, Pakistan has been trying to establish an “Islamic” government in Kabul to consolidate its so-called “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.
Pakistan not only failed to take into account the history of failed peace processes with the TTP, but also, for some unknown reason, shut its eyes to the possibility of the TTP using this period of talks – which culminated in a ceasefire agreement in June 2022 – to relocate back to Pakistan. The resurgence of violence in 2022 shows this is exactly what happened.
The TTP simply re-enacted its past behaviour to achieve its objectives. Between 2007 and 2014, Pakistan launched various rounds of “peace talks” with various TTP leaders, but none of them curtailed the group or convinced it to renounce militancy. Each round of talks made the group stronger, leading to a long war between the TTP and the Pakistan state from 2014 onwards.
Guess who’s back?
Why did Pakistan decide to follow the same policy that failed to yield any meaningful result in the past? There could be multiple reasons, but the most important one is the Pakistan state’s institutionalised ambivalence to, and contradictory relationship with, militant groups. Between September 2021 and November 2022, when the ceasefire ended and the TTP restarted attacks, Pakistan was led by the type of elites, both civil and military, that did not necessarily see the TTP as an enemy. What followed was a policy of appeasement as Pakistan pursued peace from a position of weakness. If Pakistan had actually defeated the TTP, as claimed by the army chief in 2016, there would have been no need for talks. Without that, the TTP’s reorganisation following the fall of Kabul increased the prospects of yet another “war on terror” that Pakistan felt it could not fight, let alone win, given its extremely precarious economic position and the unavailability of external (meaning American) help.
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister during this time, is well-known for his policy of negotiating with the Taliban. He has now revealed that there was a plan, sanctioned by Bajwa himself, to resettle the TTP in Pakistan and accommodate some of its demands. To continue to appease the TTP and accept its preconditions for talks – which amounted to Islamabad’s admission of its weakness vis-à-vis the terror group – Pakistan released almost one hundred TTP fighters and leaders in December 2021.
Taking appeasement to the next level, Pakistan also conveyed in September 2021 its willingness to offer amnesty to the TTP if the group renounced violence and accepted Pakistan’s Constitution. These offers only boosted the TTP’s morale as the group, interpreting this as further proof of Pakistan’s weakness, stuck to its core demands which included handing over control of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, now part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. This was part of the TTP’s plan to establish a mini-Islamic emirate inside Pakistan under the suzerainty of the Afghan Taliban.
When Pakistan started talks with the TTP soon after the fall of Kabul, the concerned authorities defended the approach by saying that wars could not be fought “infinitely.”
Pakistan could not accept this demand, leading to the end of the ceasefire in November 2022. The TTP started attacking Pakistan again and the organisation also brought its allies, such as the Islamic State-Khorasan, to Pakistan to expand its war.
Underlying Pakistan’s flawed approach to the TTP is its extremely negative approach to the people of the former FATA, who have been protesting for months against the TTP’s armed resurgence in their region and the group’s use of violence to establish its control, including targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom. Instead of listening to and allying with these people against the TTP, Islamabad has condemned the protesters, calling them “anti-state”. Ali Wazir, an elected member of the National Assembly from South Waziristan and one of the loudest voices against terrorism in Pakistan, was jailed for almost two years for his sharp criticism of Pakistan’s policy to appease the TTP and relocate it to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Why did Pakistan decide to follow the same policy that failed to yield any meaningful result in the past?
By not learning from failed peace talks with the TTP in the past, by making disingenuous claims about defeating the TTP, by not making alliances with its own people and by favouring terror groups, all the Pakistan state has accomplished is the creation of space for the TTP to fill and exploit. This has left Pakistan with no option but to accept new ground realities being created by the TTP, with support from Kabul.
While the end of the ceasefire led Pakistan’s civil and military officials to claim that they will once again defeat the TTP, in reality, Pakistan is still in talks with the Afghan Taliban to “resettle” the TTP in Pakistan. Indeed, this was the focus of talks that a high-level Pakistan delegation – which included the defence minister and the head of Inter-Services Intelligence – held with the Afghan Taliban in Kabul. For anyone who cares to see it, it’s clear Pakistan is doing the same thing over again, yet still hoping for a different outcome.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. He covers Pakistan as a regular contributor to Himal Briefs.
This article was originally published on Himal Southasian.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.