Soon after the Taliban swept into power in Kabul, the aligned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgent group ramped up its attacks across the border on the Pakistani state.
While the Afghan Taliban has persistently denied that TTP serves as its rebel proxy, the former exercises significant influence over the latter, evident in the Afghan Taliban’s official “mediating” role between the TTP and Islamabad in recent weeks.
Some saw Pakistan’s recent push at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit held in Islamabad to recognize the Afghan Taliban government as part of a wider negotiation on TTP, few believe the strategy will produce Pakistan’s desired result.
TTP is fighting for an Islamic state under sharia law in Pakistan, similar to the “Islamic Emirate” the Afghan Taliban just established in Kabul.
Despite its loyalties to the Afghan Taliban, TTP also has strong ties to Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), which was born largely from disaffected TTP members.
ISIS-K and the Afghan Taliban are at loggerheads; TTP and ISIS-K are notably not in conflict, with ISIS-K even recently releasing statements of support for TTP. This connection, depending on how it evolves in the months ahead, could have big security implications in the region and beyond.
According to a US intelligence assessment cited by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, the ISIS-K could be capable of mounting an attack on the West, including in the United States, in the near future.
It was thus lost on few when TTP’s leadership recently threatened to switch loyalties from the Afghan Taliban to ISIS-K if the former pushed too hard for a peace deal with Pakistan. The 2020 US Country Reports on Terrorism mentions a direct ideological affinity between the TTP and al-Qaeda as well, the Carnegie Endowment noted in a recent report.
That means TPP, with several thousand fighters and strongholds on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, can likely continue to wage its war on Islamabad with or without Kabul’s support.
The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has reinvigorated TTP’s attacks in Pakistan. According to the data compiled by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, TPP carried out 44 attacks and killed 73 people in Pakistan between July and September 2021.
Most recently, two soldiers were injured and a military vehicle was destroyed on Wednesday (December 22) after TTP detonated a bomb near the Drabin police station in Dera Ismail Khan district.
It marked the 21st attack by TTP following the end of a ceasefire agreement that was not renewed after a month at the end of November. TTP claims Pakistan broke the terms of the agreement by failing to release its jailed fighters and rounding up more of them during the brief cessation of hostilities.
The ceasefire’s failure shows TTP remains focused on a military victory not political settlement, and that the Afghan Taliban are unable – and likely unwilling – to control a group that is its ideological mirror.
Since July 2020, ten militant groups opposed to the Pakistani state merged with TTP, including, among others, three Pakistani affiliates of al-Qaeda and four major factions that had separated from the TTP in 2014.
Following these mergers, TTP violence has become more frequent, and this violent streak continues to accelerate as a result of the Afghan Taliban’s takeover in Kabul in August 2021.
Following in the Afghan Taliban’s footsteps, TTP adopted a more centralized bureaucratic and less tribal organizational structure in 2020, in which it has appointed shadow governors for different regions of Pakistan and announced the group’s first-ever centralized military training system.
The Afghan-Taliban mediated talks are thus unlikely to produce meaningful results not only because the TTP remains ideologically predisposed to sharia law but also because the Afghan Taliban’s mediation naturally favors the TTP – a position rooted in the fact the TTP directly aided the Taliban’s post-9/11 resurgence and subsequent long war against the US.
According to one Pakistani diplomatic official who requested anonymity, the Afghan Taliban “are unlikely to just eliminate the TTP” because “many of the TTP fighters who fought alongside the Afghan Taliban developed a kind of brotherhood that the Taliban leadership is extremely unlikely to break for Pakistan.”
At the same time, the Afghan-Taliban cannot be seen as overly cosseting TTP. In a bid for aid and recognition, the Taliban has promised the international community that it will not allow transnational terror groups to operate from its territory.
The Carnegie Endowment notes in its report that the TTP comprises two-third of these fighters and that if it continues to mount attacks in Pakistan, the Taliban’s promises will be considered nullified, further isolating the regime at a time of famine and economic collapse.
The TTP claimed in 2020 that it no longer had any regional or global agenda beyond Pakistan. The Carnegie Endowment report said this pronouncement may have reflected an attempt to reduce international support for Pakistan’s battle against the TTP, for which Islamabad was previously able to secure sophisticated US drone technology due to its al Qaeda links.
In 2018, the TTP formally excluded from its manifesto calls for a “greater jihad” in Afghanistan and for supporting the global jihadi agenda of al-Qaeda—calls that were prevalent in its early narratives, the same report said.
It’s all part of TTP’s survival strategy. According to a May 2021 report of the United States Institute of Peace, the TTP derives much of its strength from “its network of relationships with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda and other Punjab-based groups.” Therefore, “as long as these relationships are sustained, the TTP is likely to exist in one form or the other.”
TTP is also likely to survive as “the Afghan Taliban’s counterweight vis-à-vis Pakistan within a complex regional environment in which the Taliban are increasingly relying on the presence of these groups to shape, or re-shape, their ties with regional states, including Pakistan,” according to a Pakistani security official who requested anonymity.
The use of these groups is also tied to how certain factions within the Taliban – namely the powerful and autonomous Haqqani network that controls the interior ministry – continue to follow an ideology that prioritizes jihad over political and economic stability.
In this context, the resistance by certain powerful Taliban factions to take action against groups like the TPP is providing them with conducive conditions for survival, expansion and continuation of their transnational jihad from Afghanistan.
As the UN report also highlighted, various transnational terror groups based in Afghanistan are seeking to export their jihad to both Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang region.
The fact that TPP is attacking both Pakistan and the Beijing-funded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure building program connects the group directly with the wider transnational jihad emerging within Afghanistan today.
In July, at least nine Chinese officials were killed in a TTP attack in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK). In April, a TTP attack on a luxury hotel in Quetta purportedly targeted Chinese officials, although no one was killed in the attack.
Even though TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud has claimed that TTP is at war with only Pakistan, the attacks on China’s Belt and Road projects there show “how the group is increasingly incorporating transnational jihadi ideology that has a more than visible presence in Afghanistan,” said the Pakistani security official.
At the same time, TTP’s connection with ISIS-K has dangerous implications for both Islamabad and Beijing considering ISIS-K’s repeated vow to bring jihad to China to avenge the abuses committed against ethnic Uighurs now held in sprawling camps in Xinjiang.
“Unless Pakistan decides to launch another military operation, a TTP-ISIS-K resurgence in Pakistan’s tribal areas will spell disaster for Pakistan insomuch as an obvious target will be the CPEC projects,” warned the Pakistani diplomatic official.
It’s not clear to most that Pakistan plans a full-scale and costly military assault on TTP in remote and mountainous tribal border regions. While previous anti-TPP operations were sometimes supported by US coalition forces, that support will not be forthcoming in the post-US withdrawal context.
While a key source of help could be China, Beijing has not yet made any commitments to extend direct military help and assistance to Pakistan, despite the rising TTP threat to the CPEC and China’s wider regional ambitions.