In December 2007, an umbrella organization of jihadist militias across Pakistan’s border regions with Afghanistan was formed, producing a united, ferocious front that would take on the Pakistani state and kill tens of thousands of civilians, as well as thousands of soldiers and security personnel. By the spring of 2009, the group known as the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had taken over most of the country’s Pashtun belt. Two major, as well as many other smaller, Pakistan Army counterinsurgency operations pushed back the TTP, which was concentrated in the North Waziristan tribal area, as well as parts of Afghanistan. But as a terrorist force, the TTP resurged in 2011, despite the killing of its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, two years earlier.
While the TTP has experienced splintering and internal feuds in recent years, it faces its greatest threat today with the emergence of a counterumbrella force, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan–Jamaatul Ahrar (TTP-JA), which was formed last month by a group of dissident commanders.
Though he does not head the group, the driving force behind the TTP-JA is Umar Khalid Khorasani, an Afghanistan-based Pakistani militant who had commanded TTP forces in the Mohmand tribal area in Pakistan. Umar Khalid has always been somewhat of a renegade. For example, last September, as nascent talks between the TTP—then led by Hakimullah Mehsud—and the government were rumored to be underway, Umar Khalid said that he would oppose any decision by the group to engage in talks with Islamabad.
As peace talks between the TTP, led by Maulvi Fazlullah, and the Pakistani government proceeded this year, splinter groups, such as the Ahrar ul Hind outfit, emerged and continued terror attacks in Pakistan amid a ceasefire between the TTP and Islamabad. Fazlullah, who is based in Afghanistan and is not a member of the Mehsud tribe that provided the TTP’s first two central leaders, never quite consolidated control of the organization. There has been internecine strife, with drive-by shootings taking place in the North Waziristan tribal area, where the TTP had been concentrated, ahead of the Pakistan military’s ground operations in the area that began in June.
Much, though not all, of North Waziristan has been cleansed of the TTP and allied jihadist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Terror attacks in Pakistan are down significantly this year; Pakistan is on pace to have its fewest terrorism-related deaths since 2010. Some militant groups, such as the Junood al-Hafsa led by Asmatullah Muawiya, have reportedly decided to focus on Afghanistan, instead of Pakistan.
However, Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership should not confuse the drop in terror attacks for a durable, strategic victory. Denying the TTP space in much of North Waziristan has offered real tactical gains. But Pakistan’s leaders must dig in for the long haul. The military will have to remain in the seven tribal areas, as well as the Swat district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for years to come to hold counterinsurgency gains made since 2009. The fate of Pakistan’s tribal areas hinges on the outcome of the Afghan election impasse and whether Kabul will have a united government that can hold back the Afghan Taliban or pursue peace with it. The insurgency in Afghanistan indirectly sustains the insurgency in Pakistan, given the former’s reliance on safe havens that service militants targeting both states.
It remains to be seen how the two Pakistani Taliban camps will deal with their differences. Will they ultimately choose to coexist separately or engage in a death match? And can Al Qaeda step in, stop the hemorrhaging and negotiate an inter-Taliban truce?
The momentum is on the side of the TTP-JA, which, if it plays its cards right, has an opportunity to sideline the original TTP group and produce a stronger, consolidated jihadist front against Islamabad. Given the Pakistani military’s apparent inability to kill major TTP commanders, there is an ample militant leadership base from which the TTP-JA could recruit.
The TTP-JA is likely to consider colluding with a third-party force to bolster its public stature or tactical capabilities. Recognition from Al Qaeda’s new South Asia affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS)—which has defined its jurisdiction as eastern and southern Pakistan, and from India all the way to Burma—could give the TTP-JA a leg up over the TTP. Both AQIS and the TTP claim they are fighting Ghazwa-e Hind, or a great battle for historic India, including most of present-day Pakistan.
Contrary to media speculation, ISIS remains the new kid on the block in South Asia. An overt relationship between the TTP-JA and ISIS is highly unlikely, as it would amount to a public rebuke of Mullah Omar. Public pledges of loyalty to the Afghan Taliban leader—as long as he remains alive—are essential to the legitimacy of Taliban militants on both sides of the Durand Line. The death of Mullah Omar would certainly give groups like the TTP-JA the opportunity to pledge fealty to ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But at this point, the TTP-JA’s media-savvy spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, will probably restrict himself to public flirtations with ISIS, knowing that the mere mention of the group’s name is an easy way to get press attention.
Finally, Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, which has aided elements of the TTP, could choose to help the TTP-JA bloody Islamabad’s nose, or renew support to its rival, Fazlullah, whom it has provided with “sanctuary and some money,” according to The New York Times. Praveen Swami, writing in The Hindu earlier this year, claimed that “NDS officials admit they have staged bomb-for-bomb actions [in Pakistan] against attacks they attribute to the ISI.”
In Afghanistan, the two presidential candidates are mired in an electoral stalemate. U.S. combat troops will be gone by the year’s end. And the Afghan Taliban is ascendant in the south. Across and along the Durand Line, Pakistani Taliban groups are on their back foot, but could reconsolidate and become a force to be reckoned with once again.
One thing’s for sure: the Taliban wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan are far from over. They are only moving on to their next phase.
Arif Rafiq (@arifcrafiq) is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consuling, LLC, which provides strategic guidance on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Raza0007/CC by-sa 3.0