How the Afghan Taliban are using Pakistan’s own playbook on the presence of TTP safe havens on their soil

Amidst political polarization, an economic crisis, and a constitutional impasse, Pakistan is determined to launch large-scale military operations to fight the threat of terrorism within the country. The resurgence of the proscribed Islamic militant organization TTP (Tehreek Taliban Pakistan) after the fall of Kabul in 2021 has posed serious security concerns. In a recent national security committee meeting, Pakistan’s lawmakers and military establishments agreed in a consensual manner to take strict measures against terrorist entities who are working nefariously on an anti-Pakistan narrative. The incumbent government of Pakistan also blamed the previous government for their ‘thoughtless policy,’ such as leniency towards the TTP which openly denies the constitutional framework of Pakistan.

The soft policies followed by the previous government with the TTP rendered the group adequate space to realign and plan deadly attacks in Pakistan. Additionally, it allowed them to regroup in the tribal areas of Pakistan’s province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, abutting Afghanistan.

Considering the popularity of TTP in Afghanistan, it is important to understand the widespread support that the group has among locals and the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan because of their ideological affinities. A report shared by the USIP thereby shows how the Afghan Taliban provides safe havens to the group in Afghanistan. Moreover, TTP is majorly liked by both the Taliban and non-Taliban constituencies because of their fervent dislike for Pakistan—presumably, this could also be one of the reasons how Afghan nationals are being recruited by TTP to launch terrorist attacks in Pakistan

TTP also has a powerful allegiance with the Emir of the Afghan Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada. Consequently, they have renewed their vow to the Emir and other Afghan Taliban leaders. Moreover, TTP played an instrumental role in the 20 years long insurgency of the Afghan Taliban against US-led NATO forces. As a result, the group shares an unbinding adherence with the Afghan Taliban. This raises the question: amidst the inexorable affinity of the Afghan Taliban and TTP, how difficult will it be for the de facto government in Afghanistan to honor the commitments made in the Doha agreement?”

The recent visit of the Pakistani delegations including security officials and Pakistan’s defense minister has also urged the Taliban government to honor their Doha commitments. One of the major commitments emphasized was the prevention of their soil from being used for terrorist activities against any country. Additionally, they expressed concerns regarding TTP’s presence in Afghanistan and their utilization of sanctuaries to carry out deadly terrorist attacks in Pakistan. However, the Afghan Taliban has denied these claims of providing sanctuaries to TTP.  

Ironically, Pakistan’s myopic policy of seeking “strategic depth” in Afghanistan appears to be backfiring against them. The Afghan Taliban is now employing a tactic similar to Pakistan’s past approach: while Pakistan had long denied providing safe havens to the Afghan Taliban on its own soil, the denial gave the Taliban leverage to launch attacks against Afghan forces and the US-led NATO forces. Interestingly, Pakistan often disregarded accusations made by the US and NATO forces regarding their support for the Taliban.

There is also a hint of an internal division within the Afghan Taliban movement. According to a recent report by the USIP, the movement is experiencing a split between two factions: the Moderate Taliban and the Hardliners. This division primarily revolves around the Kandhari faction led by the Emir, and the more pragmatic figures such as Mullah Baradar and Siraj Haqqani. As a result, the loyalty of the TTP is inclined towards the Emir, making it unlikely for the Taliban, especially the pragmatists currently engaged with Pakistani authorities, to take drastic measures against the group.

Furthermore, the Afghan Taliban are also facing a growing threat from IS-KP (Islamic State Khorasan Province), a group that has publicly rejected the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Any actions taken against the TTP could potentially trigger an internal rift within the Taliban, leading to the possibility of dissident TTP fighters aligning themselves with IS-KP. Such a development would pose a significant security challenge not only for Afghanistan but for the entire region.

Currently, Pakistan is grappling with a challenging trifecta of issues: political crisis, economic distress, and the persistent threat of terrorism. This puts Pakistan in a difficult position, as it contemplates conducting full-fledged military operations within its own borders. There are two crucial aspects to consider. Firstly, the TTP’s use of guerrilla tactics, including hit-and-run strategies, makes it challenging for Pakistan to launch effective operations, given that the group enjoys sanctuaries primarily in the neighboring territories of Afghanistan that abut Pakistan. Secondly, winning the hearts and trust of the local population presents a formidable task. The people in these areas directly experienced the consequences of previous operations, particularly in 2014, which resulted in a large number of displacements and internal crises. As a result, they are cautious and apprehensive about any further military operations in their regions. Recently, a Member of the National Assembly (MNA) from North Waziristan vehemently opposed military operations in their areas, instead demanding accountability from the authorities who allowed TTP fighters to infiltrate their regions.

Pakistan is reeling to form a productive strategy to counter the imminent threat of TTP within the country. Therefore, the regarding the issue of terrorism, Pakistan seeks consultation with regional states to exert pressure on Afghanistan. Nevertheless, China also faces a significant threat from dissenting Uyghur Muslim groups like ETIM (The East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which largely operates from Northern Afghanistan. In recent meetings between neighboring countries of Afghanistan, held in Samarkand and then in Islamabad, Pakistan, and China consistently urged the Afghan Taliban’s Foreign Minister, Maulana Amir Khan Muttaqi, to prioritize counter-terrorism efforts within Afghanistan. Recognizing the pronounced terrorism threat faced by Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, have offered to cooperate in countering extremism, terrorism, and separatism.

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