Main Image Credit A burial ceremony in Lahore, Pakistan following a suicide blast claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which killed at least 29 people in 2017. Courtesy of Rana Sajid Hussain/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News
The TTP has experienced a reversal of fortunes, in part thanks to the changing circumstances within Afghanistan.
Since its inception in 2007, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been the largest and most active armed opposition group in Pakistan. It was formed by several small groups operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan and to a lesser extent in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and has always been almost entirely Pashtun in composition. The repression carried out by the Pakistani army has been ruthless, and the TTP has developed a record of extreme violence, including against civilians who are only remotely associated with the Pakistani state.
Signs of a TTP resurgence were already emerging in 2020, when it carried out over 120 attacks, but in recent weeks the group was able to launch its long-trailed ‘offensive’ in Waziristan. In July alone, the TTP carried out 26 attacks.
The resurgence has been the result of multiple factors, of which the growing tension between the Pashtun population of the old tribal areas and the NWFP and the central government is only one, and possibly not the most important. The TTP went through a long period of crisis and internal fragmentation and by 2018 it was nearly defunct; its nominal leadership could muster possibly only 2,000 fighters under its direct authority.
The rise to power of Noor Wali Mehsud, the most ‘intellectual’ of the TTP leaders so far, inaugurated a reversal of the group’s decline. Noor Wali spent years trying to reunify the TTP, to good effect. The majority of the splinter groups have now come back together, and most of the remaining ones are negotiating with Noor Wali. Only a few groups of followers of the previous leader, Maulana Fazlullah, stubbornly refuse to engage.
How did Noor Wali do it? He accepted that the TTP would not work as a centralised organisation, and that attempts to impose greater control and central decision-making from the leadership had been one of the main causes of the group’s disintegration. So, Noor Wali adopted a more ‘federal’ approach to rebuilding the TTP, allowing the various sub-leaders to retain a large degree of autonomy under the TTP umbrella.
TTP sources, contacted at various stages from 2018–21, suggested that Al-Qa’ida played a role in advising and supporting Noor Wali. Indeed, his reforms appear to have followed the suggestions that Al-Qa’ida had been formulating since the TTP’s inception, as they emerge from the Abbottabad papers captured in the residence of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Among other things, Al-Qa’ida advised against indiscriminate violence targeted at Muslims, and indeed Noor Wali dropped what had previously been a trademark TTP tactic of targeting civilians in bomb attacks. The TTP has also abandoned its previous ambitious aim of overthrowing the Pakistani government, and now argues more in terms of the secession of the Pashtun-populated areas as its grand aim. In practice, it might settle for less. During its unofficial negotiations with Islamabad in 2020, the TTP appears to have asked for greater autonomy for the tribal areas at least, including the restoration of a Sharia-based regime there. The negotiations collapsed, but they may well resume in the future.
Al-Qa’ida and the TTP always had a troubled relationship, although Al-Qa’ida never abandoned the TTP completely. Sources in Al-Qa’ida have in the past described their financial support for the TTP as fluctuating. Clearly, despite its reservations about the capabilities of the TTP’s leadership, Al-Qa’ida calculated that it needed the TTP. With Noor Wali at the helm of the TTP, Al-Qa’ida seems to have regained confidence in the group as a viable organisation.
Interestingly, the TTP has recently moved most of its men away from eastern Afghanistan, where it has been based for several years, and is now hosted by the Haqqani network in the southeast. The Haqqani network, long considered by the US as an insurgent organisation in its own right, is a component of the Afghan Taliban, but has a high degree of autonomy. It is also known for being at the hardline end of the Taliban ideological continuum. The TTP’s presence in the southeast tells us something about Pakistan–Haqqani and Pakistan–Taliban relations. The Haqqani network has for many years been touted as the component of the Taliban closest to the Pakistani intelligence services. It had agreed to cut off relations with the TTP several years ago, under pressure from the Pakistani authorities.
The resumption of that relationship in recent months raises the question of why the Haqqanis would challenge the Pakistanis. According to Haqqani network sources contacted last year, during the negotiations between the Taliban and the US and for over a year afterwards, the Pakistani military severely curtailed support – both in funding and supplies – to the Haqqanis, who resisted the US–Taliban agreement and were widely seen as trying to sabotage it. The Pakistani authorities were heavily invested in the US–Taliban agreement and had no desire to see the Haqqanis spoil it.
The Haqqani–TTP rapprochement therefore appears to be an attempt by the Haqqanis to put pressure on the Pakistani authorities. The Haqqanis likely feared that if the US–Taliban agreement took off and an interim government was established in Afghanistan, they would be sidelined for good. Since then, Pakistani supplies and funding to the Haqqanis have been reinstated, even exceeding levels in 2019 significantly, according to sources within the Taliban. However, from the Haqqanis’ point of view, the need to secure leverage vis-à-vis Pakistan is now well-established.
The Haqqanis are seemingly also helping Noor Wali to complete his work of reunifying the many TTP factions, mediating between Noor Wali and some TTP splinters which had pulled out of the struggle against the Pakistani authorities and were already hosted by the Haqqanis in the southeast.
The TTP has not only relocated the majority of its fighting force to the southeast, but has also abandoned its old neutrality in the Afghan conflict and participated in attacks against Afghan government forces alongside the Taliban. This has been the case not only in the southeast, but also in eastern Afghanistan, where the TTP contributed decisively to the capture of the district of Ghaziabad (Kunar) in July. Although the Haqqanis have influence over various Taliban groups in the east, this cooperation suggests a rapprochement between the TTP and the mainstream Taliban as well.
These developments suggest a partial realignment of the TTP, dictated by the changing circumstances in Afghanistan. Its participation in the fighting against the Afghan security forces clearly shows that the TTP no longer receives – or accepts – support from the Afghan security services for operations against Pakistan, as was privately admitted to me by an officer in the National Directorate of Security. At the same time, it is obvious that the TTP’s funding is not decreasing; quite the contrary, as it is intensifying its activities in Pakistan. Where the new funding is coming from is unclear, but Al-Qa’ida is a prime suspect.
Last winter, according to a source within the Haqqani network, Al-Qa’ida re-established close relations with the Haqqanis, which were curtailed some years ago in retaliation for the growing closeness between the Haqqani network and the Islamic State in Khorasan. Al-Qa’ida, according to the source, also promised to channel funding which it used to transfer to the Quetta Shura of the Taliban to the Haqqanis. This, in addition to the TTP’s move to the southeast, suggests that Al-Qa’ida might be trying to establish a new safe haven for itself in the southeast, away from its traditional one in the east, where the Islamic State in Khorasan has taken over most of the old Al-Qa’ida camps. Although the Afghan branch of Al-Qa’ida reportedly managed to reach a modus vivendi with the Islamic State in the east, it is unlikely that it felt safe there. The Haqqani network and the TTP may well be able to provide a strong shelter for Al-Qa’ida in the southeast, in any case. At the moment the US–Taliban agreements appear to be in tatters, but sources in Al-Qa’ida say the organisation has lost trust in the political leadership of the Taliban and does not want to be dependent on its whims any more.
Although the TTP’s predicament remains a difficult one, arguably Noor Wali Mehsud relaunched and repositioned it as effectively as he could. The Taliban’s ascent to power in Afghanistan could result in them becoming a powerful lobby in favour of a settlement of the TTP insurgency in Pakistan, along the lines of what the TTP already requested in 2020 – that is, some kind of Sharia law-based autonomy for the old tribal areas.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
An earlier version of this article contained an image of Ibrahim Khan of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan with an incorrect caption. Both the image and caption have been updated.
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Dr Antonio Giustozzi
Senior Research Fellow
Terrorism and Conflict