The Evolution and Future of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is the largest militant organization fighting against the state in Pakistan. According to the UN, the TTP also boasts several thousand fighters in Afghanistan, with strongholds on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Although Pakistani military actions, U.S. drone warfare, and factional infighting led to the TTP’s decline from 2014 to 2018, the militant group has been experiencing a strong resurgence since the Afghan Taliban and U.S. government signed a peace deal in February 2020. In fact, since July 2020, ten militant groups opposed to the Pakistani state have merged with the 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.
The TTP serves as a crucial case study due to its deep historical roots with the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). The group is a by-product of al-Qaeda’s jihadi politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11. The TTP still has covert links with al-Qaeda and has declared that it looks to Afghan Taliban leaders as its own while enjoying safe haven under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. And although the ISKP was born largely from disaffected TTP members, it has always avoided any physical confrontation with the group. Moreover, ISKP public messages continue to reveal a soft spot for TTP fighters. This connection will be particularly important to monitor, as any alliance between the two groups could have severe security implications beyond the region. According to a U.S. intelligence assessment, the ISKP could be capable of mounting an attack in the West, including in the United States, in the near future. Any alliance between the TTP and the ISKP could strengthen the ISKP and worsen the threat it poses beyond the region.
To understand how much of a threat the TTP could pose, it is useful to examine the rise and evolution of the group-its background, the policies and strategies that helped the group achieve legitimacy among jihadists since its establishment in 2007, and its changing efforts to eliminate past liabilities and make its anti-state militant campaign more mainstream in Pakistan. This information provides valuable context for assessing the significance of the TTP’s intensified violence and organizational strength after the Afghan Taliban’s return to power and, more importantly, for gauging its future threat to security and the likelihood of a peace deal with the Pakistani state.
The TTP’s Origins
The TTP is a by-product of the intra-jihadi politics that followed the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The TTP claims that its armed struggle aims to establish an Islamic political system in Pakistan based on the group’s interpretation of sharia, a task it says was the main goal for establishing Pakistan in 1947. At the time of the U.S. invasion, many Pakistani jihadists who had fought on behalf of the Pakistani government in Afghanistan and in Indian Kashmir turned against the Pakistani state for its support of the United States’ so-called global war on terror, among other grievances. TTP members thus began sheltering the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militant allies who were fleeing the Afghanistan conflict. Yielding to U.S. pressure, the Pakistani government eventually cracked down on the safe havens, but its violent response ultimately prompted these Pakistani jihadists to band together and more formally ally with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. This eventually led to the establishment of the TTP in 2007.
At its inception, the TTP claimed to be an extension of the Afghan Taliban. It declared that the then leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was its spiritual leader and offered to support the Afghan Taliban’s war against the United States and its allies. Though the TTP framed its militant campaign as a defensive war against Pakistan’s military operations, the group hoped to follow in the Afghan Taliban’s footsteps and establish a sharia system in Pakistan, freeing the country from the “American stooges” who supposedly governed it.
However, over time, the TTP’s focus and strategy changed. For instance, in 2020 the TTP claimed that it no longer had any regional or global agenda beyond Pakistan. This pronouncement may have reflected an attempt to reduce international support for Pakistan’s battle against the TTP; at times, Pakistan was able to secure sophisticated U.S. drone technology to fight the TTP due to the group’s open collaboration with al-Qaeda. 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 group also made another tactical change in its 2018 manifesto: it deprioritized indiscriminate attacks on Pakistani targets, including against civilians. For years, these attacks had aimed to pressure the Pakistani government to meet TTP demands. But the TTP’s manifesto redirected its fighters away from attacking civilians and religious minorities, advocating instead targeted violence against Pakistani military personnel and intelligence operatives. Since this redirection, there has been a sharp decline in TTP attacks against civilians. While it is difficult to say what caused the change in tactics, one reason could be that the TTP’s early spate of violence against civilians earned the ire of global and local jihadi allies, including Osama bin Laden. Another reason could be that the TTP wanted to focus its war on the Pakistani state and security forces.
Finally, to help establish its legitimacy, the TTP had to align some of its objectives with the political goals of certain Pakistani religio-political and ethnic parties, particularly a subset of Baluch and Pashtun nationalists. In recent decades, these ethnic minorities have protested allegedly discriminative and exploitative state policies. They are located in the Pakistan tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, which serves as the TTP’s support base.
How It Has Evolved
The TTP has evolved over the years to maintain its influence among jihadi networks in Pakistan.
The TTP faced two challenges from the outset. First, it had to lay the foundation of the anti-state jihadi war front in Pakistan. The Pakistani military establishment’s strong ties with indigenous jihadi groups complicated this objective. These groups were actively involved in the jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan and enjoyed the state’s support. Thus, the TTP had to turn this long-standing jihadi friendship with the state into an open jihadi war against the state. Second, it needed to gain prominence in Pakistan’s highly competitive jihadi and religio-political ecosystem, in which many advocated nonmilitant means to achieve the same goals that the TTP was fighting for. These religio-political parties have been working for decades to accomplish the fundamental goal of creating a Pakistani state that upholds their interpretation of sharia.
To work around these challenges, TTP leaders pursued four political objectives. First, the group’s leadership strengthened its alliances with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda to increase its local and international legitimacy. Pakistani Pashtun tribesmen as well as Deobandi and Salafist seminaries, Islamist parties, and other jihadi groups all supported the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency against the United States and its allies, seeing the campaign as a legitimate jihad to expel foreign infidels. Thus, as the TTP supported the Afghan jihad by offering material provisions, the group’s legitimacy was enhanced. This strategy helped the TTP recruit a large number of young recruits for its war against the Pakistani state. The TTP provided the Afghan Taliban with bases in the Pashtun tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, eventually earning an official endorsement from its Afghan ally. Its closeness to the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda-as well as Pakistani jihadists’ frustrations with pro-state militant groups who were seen as compromising their narratives after 9/11-granted the TTP space in the competitive jihadi ecosystem, elevating it above other groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Similarly, the TTP garnered al-Qaeda’s support by providing it shelter in Pakistan. It also launched attacks either with, or on behalf of, al-Qaeda. For instance, a prominent TTP leader eventually claimed that the group assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto within weeks of the group’s formal launch; she had been considered one of al-Qaeda’s top enemies since the early 1990s. In addition, the TTP organized attacks to appeal to the global jihadi agenda of al-Qaeda. For example, the TTP attempted to bomb New York City in 2010, a plot that was ultimately foiled. A year earlier, it had played a lead role in the suicide attack on a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency compound in Afghanistan’s southeastern Khost Province-another attack aimed at pleasing its ally. These acts further increased the TTP’s local and international legitimacy and its competitiveness with more established jihadi groups in the region.
Second, the TTP killed hundreds of tribal elders who opposed its militancy in the tribal belt. The former Pakistani Pashtun tribal belt-comprised of the semiautonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)-was governed by a tribal system. However, the government had partial control of the FATA and needed the tribal elders’ support to govern the territories and their people. Thus, in attacking the elders, the TTP essentially superseded and replaced the traditional tribal chieftains’ system with its militancy, thereby increasing its hold in these areas.
Third, the TTP poached members from highly skilled cadres of anti-Shia sectarian militant groups in Pakistan, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Horrific attacks that the TTP carried out against the Shia sect in Pakistan encouraged LeJ members to defect, given the latter’s exclusive targeting of the Shia sect. As the TTP leveraged the capabilities of anti-Shia groups, this eventually helped to intensify the TTP’s war against the Pakistani state.
Fourth, before 9/11, the TTP established a sharia system in the style of the Afghan Taliban in northwestern Pakistan. This strategy attracted members of Pakistani Islamist groups from the districts of Malakand, Bajaur, and Orakzai, among others, thereby expanding the TTP’s political base. The TTP was also able to attract educated Islamists from Pakistan’s urban areas; many of these people were frustrated about the failed political approaches to sharia implementation in the country. The TTP’s efforts helped it win over numerous Islamists who had long been aiming to achieve the Islamization of Pakistan through nonmilitant, religious-political means.
Transforming Into an Anti-State Militant Movement
Over time, the TTP evolved into a focused anti-state militant movement in Pakistan. Three factors contributed to this change: al-Qaeda’s decreasing influence, the Afghan Taliban’s rising influence, and the TTP’s expanding efforts to remain relevant in contemporary Pakistani politics.
Initially, al-Qaeda had a profound influence on the TTP’s politics. For example, it compelled TTP leaders to revisit their anti-Shia agenda and largely limit the war to Western interests and the Pakistani state; in 2010, bin Laden asked the TTP to stop attacks against the Shias and the Barelvi subsect of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in Pakistan. But after U.S. drone strikes killed TTP leaders Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, the group was forced to reconsider its public support for al-Qaeda. Although al-Qaeda played an instrumental role in the TTP’s birth, rise, and expansion, the group determined that a close public relationship with al-Qaeda had become a liability. According to recent reports, however, al-Qaeda still plays an important role in mentoring the TTP behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban’s influence has grown stronger. With some members co-located with the TTP in the tribal area of Waziristan in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban became a natural political and organizational model for the TTP. As the Afghan Taliban refined its strategy, the TTP followed suit. In 2014, TTP leaders Omar Khalid Khorasani and Qari Shakeel Ahmad wanted to replace the quasi-tribal structure of TTP management with the Afghan Taliban’s centralized bureaucratic system, arguing that such a structure was best suited for expansion. The TTP finally adopted this change in 2020, appointing shadow governors for different regions of Pakistan and announcing the group’s first-ever centralized military training system. That same year, TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud announced that the TTP can only be victorious in Pakistan if it follows in the footsteps of the Afghan Taliban.
The TTP has also engaged more with mainstream political issues to remain relevant in Pakistan’s political discourse. For example, the TTP has called on Pakistan’s opposition political parties to reconsider their nonviolent approach if they truly seek to end the powerful military establishment’s political meddling. In this vein, the TTP has endorsed the politics of Pashtun and Baluch nationalists in Pakistan despite harboring deep ideological differences with both groups. (Baluch nationalists, for instance, are largely secular in disposition.) TTP leaders have even issued statements in support of the Pashtun rights movement, known as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, despite its anti-Taliban positions. The TTP has also recently endorsed the massive countrywide protests of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right religio-political party fighting against so-called enemies of Islam. This is particularly significant because the TLP belongs to the Sunni Barelvi sect, while the TTP originates from the rival Deobandi sect. Each of these endorsements demonstrates the TTP’s efforts to remain relevant in contemporary discourse.
The TTP After the Afghan Taliban’s Takeover
Prior to the collapse of former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s government, the Pakistani government repeatedly accused it of harboring anti-Pakistan militant groups in Afghanistan. As a result, some in Islamabad believed that if the Afghan Taliban (a so-called Pakistan-friendly organization) were to return to power in Kabul, the latter would limit these groups’ freedom of action. Contrary to these expectations, however, the Afghan Taliban’s return has so far strengthened the TTP.
Following its takeover, the Afghan Taliban released hundreds of TTP prisoners from prisons in Kabul, including TTP senior leaders like founding deputy emir Maulvi Faqir Mohammad. The TTP celebrated its members’ releases with large motor rallies and caravans in eastern Afghanistan. Videos released since the Taliban’s takeover also show the TTP enjoying complete operational freedom in Afghanistan. In addition to congratulating the Afghan Taliban on its return to power, the TTP publicly renewed its pledge of allegiance to its ally. Reinforcing its ongoing narratives, the TTP’s leadership presented the Afghan Taliban as a role model to the group’s fighters, arguing that perseverance in the war against the Pakistani state will guarantee a similar victory to what the Taliban achieved in Afghanistan. In addition, the TTP claimed responsibility for a large number of attacks in the months following the Afghan government’s collapse-generating the highest monthly average attack rate in the last five to six years.
When the Afghan Taliban’s spokesman was asked about the future of the TTP in Afghanistan, he was noncommittal and evasive. He argued that the TTP is a Pakistani issue and that his group has nothing to do with it. The spokesman even suggested that Pakistan should try to resolve its problems with the TTP through negotiations.
With the Afghan Taliban back in power in Kabul, Pakistan’s prime minister, president, and foreign minister offered negotiations and general amnesty to the TTP. Initially, the TTP rejected these offers, arguing that it considers the Pakistani constitution “un-Islamic.” Yet the group left the door to dialogue open, stating that the TTP is ready for “any serious negotiations which can ensure its sharia implementation goal in Pakistan.” And in early November, spokespeople of the Pakistani government and the TTP announced that they were negotiating under a short-term ceasefire and would be extending it to enable further dialogue.
Hopes for the negotiations are higher this time around because two major factors that led to past failures no longer exist: first, the former Afghan government and U.S. forces no longer control Afghanistan, and second, hardliners within the TTP no longer oppose dialogue. A TTP peace deal with the Pakistani state represented a direct threat to the former Afghan government and U.S. forces, ultimately resulting in TTP contributions to the Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. Thus, they always objected to such a deal in the past. With the removal of this first factor, TTP hardliners now support negotiations. For example, TTP co-founder and senior commander Khorasani completely supports negotiations this time, unlike in 2014 when he sabotaged both sides’ dialogues.
Ultimately, a political settlement remains the only option for the Pakistani government. It will not be able to pressure the Afghan Taliban to combat the TTP beyond a certain point for two reasons. First, the TTP played an instrumental role in the post-9/11 resurgence of the Taliban. The TTP’s leadership has strong bonds with various Afghan Taliban commanders and groups, who deeply admired the TTP’s sacrifices in fighting against U.S. forces and U.S. allies in Afghanistan. This pro-TTP lobby within the Taliban is influential and crosses tribal and regional cleavages. As a result, using force against the TTP would result in serious intra-Taliban rifts. Second, the Afghan Taliban faces a major challenge in countering its rival, the ISKP, which (as noted earlier) includes former influential TTP commanders and hundreds of their fighters.
The TTP also now believes that a settlement is in its best interests, in part because of its ties with the Afghan Taliban once again in power in Kabul. The TTP claims that it agreed to negotiations with the Pakistani state to decrease the political problems of the Taliban. It is aware of the Afghan Taliban’s problems with the international community and that the threat of foreign fighters in Afghanistan would exacerbate them. The Taliban has promised the United States and wider international community that it will not let any individual or group pose a threat to any state outside Afghanistan. The TTP comprises two-third of these fighters. Thus, if these fighters continue to mount attacks in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban’s promises will be considered nullified, further increasing the international community’s political mistrust.
All this said, the TTP’s main concern remains the implementation of sharia in Pakistan based on its strict interpretation of Islam. The group says that it will not lay down its arms until this goal is achieved. Thus, the likelihood of a quick peace deal between the state and the TTP remains low; Pakistan cannot afford any political settlement that comes at the cost of replacing a democratic system with strict sharia rules. Yet, because a settlement remains the only option for both sides due to geopolitical realities, there is hope that both parties will compromise to some extent to create a pathway forward.
Abdul Sayed is a researcher on jihadism and a specialist on the politics and security of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sayed has a master’s degree in political science from Lund University in Sweden. He is currently working on projects related to violent extremist organizations and transnational jihadism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His Twitter handle is @abdsayedd. This article is part of the Politics of Opposition in South Asia initiative run by Carnegie’s South Asia Program. The first article in the series examined Bangladesh’s digital crackdown.
Originally published at https://carnegieendowment.org on December 16, 2021.