To understand the interesting relationship between the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as Pakistani Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban, one must peep into history to see how the linkages developed and why the Afghan Taliban are not responding in equal measure to Pakistan’s repeated appeals to take conclusive action against the TTP. Pakistan regards the TTP as a retrograde armed outfit. It is launching regular attacks against it, despite decisive operations conducted against it in the past. The TTP, in fact, claimed through a post on Telegram on 2 September that it had carried out 32 attacks inside Pakistan in August 2021 alone.
By Ashok K. Behuria
Pakistan continues to refer to the TTP as a tool being used by India and other foreign powers to destabilise it. After the Taliban took over Kabul, Pakistan reportedly handed over a list of most-wanted TTP terrorists operating from Afghanistan to the Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada, following which, the latter set up a three-member commission to investigate Pakistan’s claims. However, the Taliban’s public response has been rather tame and diplomatic. They have said that the TTP was a foreign outfit operating inside Pakistan, and they would not allow either the TTP or any other group to operate from the Afghan soil against any other country, whereas Pakistan would have liked them to take a conclusive action against the TTP.
Coming to the TTP, it was formed in December 2007 when 13 militant Islamist outfits came together under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud (1972-2009). Today, it consists of about 40 outfits (accounts vary about the actual number). There were many precursor groups of the TTP which intended to bring Sharia rule to Pakistan, much like the Taliban had done in Afghanistan during 1996-2001. A well-known Mullah named Sufi Muhammad (1933-2019) had campaigned for Islamic rule in Pakistan ahead of the Afghan Taliban and raised an outfit called Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) in 1992. From 1994, he had started his black turban movement in the Malakand Division.
In December 1998, an outfit called Tehrik-e-Tulaba Pakistan demanded a Sharia rule in the Orakzai Agency in Pakistan. The Governor of then North West Frontier Province (NWFP), now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, had even introduced the Nizam-e-Shariat Regulation in 1994 in the Malakand Division and the Nizam-e-Adl Ordinance in 1999 in Kohistan to placate these forces, perhaps thinking that such concessions at the peripheries would help quarantine the virus locally and stop its spread elsewhere.
In fact, when the Afghan Taliban fanned out of Kandahar and began their conquest of Afghan cities in the mid-1990s, there were many willing recruits from Pakistan in the Taliban ranks. Later, when the Afghan Taliban faced the US attack in 2001, Sufi Muhammad reportedly led thousands of tribal Pakistani youth, who marched into Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban.
A policy somersault by Pakistan under American threat (to bomb Pakistan to stone-age) led to the banning of TNSM, arrest of Sufi Muhammad and operations in the tribal areas to rein in the Islamist militants who had come back home from Afghanistan to roost, principally because they had provided shelter to the foreign Al-Qaeda militants.
By 2006, Pakistan had deployed “approximately 17 infantry brigades, 45 infantry battalions, and some 58 Frontier Corps wings” in the tribal areas.4 It turned the local population against the army, even when such action was not as convincing as the Americans would have expected.
By 2007, multiple tribal Islamist groups were seen raising their heads in the tribal terrain including factions of various jihadi groups raised by the military for subversive action against India in Kashmir and sectarian ones like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, many of whose leaders had migrated to the tribal region, after Pervez Musharraf banned these groups following the 9/11 attacks.
Some factions affiliated to these jihadi elements have even carried out attacks in Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan, leading people to call them ‘Punjabi Taliban’. The TTP brought together these disparate Islamist outfits with an intent to coordinate their actions and mount a credible offensive against the Pakistani military.
The TTP is overwhelmingly Pashtun in composition (much like the Afghan Taliban), drawing its cadres mostly from the tribes in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. It has used the border areas straddling the Durand Line for its operations and managed to invoke the sympathy of the local Afghan Taliban, for whom there was hardly any difference between them fighting the Afghan Army, which was funded and equipped by the Americans, and the TTP attacking the Pakistan Army, which was launching operations against their co-ethnics and co-religionists in the tribal areas allegedly at America’s prodding.
The TTP has waxed and waned over the years. Pakistan has launched several operations against it, the most recent being Operation Radd-ul-Fassad in 2017 and Zarb-e-Azb in 2014. In the past, Pakistan claimed total victory over the TTP. The joint US-Pak actions have also successfully targeted the TTP leaders from time to time. Further, some TTP factions have split away to form outfits like Jamat-ul-Ahrar, Hizb-ul-Ahrar, etc. All this has been interpreted as having led to a decline of the TTP.
However, in recent years, especially after Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud assumed leadership of the group following the killing in June 2018 of Mullah Fazlullah, the mastermind of the Peshawar Army Public School attack of December 2014, the TTP has demonstrated its capacity to resurge itself and take on the Pakistani military with a renewed zeal. Mufti Noor has brought back many split-away factions into the group enhancing its prowess in recent months.
The TTP has ideologically gravitated towards the extreme sectarian version of radical Sunni Islam, much like the Islamic State. Over the years, various groups within the TTP have maintained close contact with global Islamist organisations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. However, the main branch of TTP has always pledged its loyalty to the Amir of Afghan Taliban. Its uncompromising Islamist orientation has perhaps endeared itself to the Taliban, who have turned a blind eye to the TTP operations against the Pakistan state, even if the former maintained close contact with the Pakistani military and benefited from it.
Going by the TTP literature, various groups within it have brought out a number of online magazines and books, many of which have been co-produced and co-circulated on their websites over the last 14 years. One of these, Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad had an uninterrupted run during 2009-2020. It was replaced by Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind, which now runs as a mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). There are other publications like books, monographs and another magazine called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
The articles written by TTP members in these publications are known for their uncompromising stance against the Pakistan state. They emphasise the vices of democracy and the un-Islamic approach of the Pakistani military. There is a repeated refrain to defeat the Pakistan Army, put an end to the democratic experiment in Pakistan and introduce Shariat-e-Muhammadi there. In a series of articles in Nawa-e-Afghan Jihad, Adnan Rashid—a native Pakistani and former technician in the Pakistan Air Force, convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the assassination attempt on Musharraf but released by the TTP on 15 April 2012 from Bannu jail— argues very forcefully that Pakistan has a kafir army because it has kafir officers in it and, whoever dies in the army (whether he is a Christian, Hindu, Sikh or Shia) is called a shaheed or martyr which is unacceptable to him as a Muslim.
About the Jihad in Kashmir, he says that he was asked to fight in Kashmir, but he did not accept it because he realised that even if Kashmir were to be liberated from the Indian control it would become part of a country, which did not function according to Islamic principles.
The TTP publications are replete with accounts by Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Jihadi leaders from other theatres of the world. They would exhort the Muslims to wage an armed jihad and not to rest until the goal is achieved. Like the Jihadi literature elsewhere, there is a lot of hatred against the US, Israel and India and often these countries are bracketed together as an axis of evil against whom jihad was considered perfectly legitimate.
Even then, Pakistan continues to believe that the TTP is being sponsored by Indian intelligence. Some of the TTP members like Latif Mehsud and Ehsanullah Ehsan have been forced to issue statements to this effect to persuade the TTP to turn their guns away from Pakistan towards India. The anti-India propaganda pamphlets have been distributed in the tribal areas from time to time urging people to wage jihad against India in Kashmir. However, this strategy has not worked. Pakistan has also tried hard to use the Afghan Taliban to change the TTP’s outlook, without any success so far.
The Afghan Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan is likely to decrease in the coming days. Therefore, even if there may be a token response to Pakistan’s request, they are unlikely to take any conclusive action against the TTP, especially when elements within the Taliban favour TTP’s idea of bringing Pakistan under Islamic rule. Moreover, action against the TTP may alienate many groups within the Taliban, affecting internal unity that is so essential to the Taliban’s hold on power in Kabul, at a time when there are reports of various factions fighting internally for power. In these circumstances, the relationship between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban will continue to be dictated by religious-ideological convergence, ethnic-fraternal linkages and the close camaraderie that emerged while they were fighting together against the foreign ‘occupying’ forces in Afghanistan.
This article first appeared in www.idsa.in and it belongs to them.