Understanding Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Unrelenting Posture
An examination of the TTP’s historical evolution since its emergence in 2007 clearly shows that the organization was degraded significantly throughout much of the last decade, as indicated by its declining operational activity in Pakistan post 2014–15. Major contributors to the TTP’s decline were internecine conflict, heavy losses from military operations, splintering and defections to Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), and significant reputational costs associated with ruthless civilian targeting. In this context, it is perhaps unexpected that the group resurged post 2018, intensified its attacks on Pakistani security personnel, and successfully repositioned itself to negotiate with the Pakistani state from a position of strength, presenting bold demands of autonomy and constitutional reversals.
What explains the TTP’s current unrelenting political posture? To shed further light on the underlying drivers of the TTP’s intransigent stance in its negotiations with the Pakistani state, we explore how the Afghan Taliban leadership’s role as a reluctant facilitator -i.e. its limited interest in pressuring the TTP to concede to Pakistan-has emboldened the TTP’s demands, coercive tactics, and messaging efforts to recreate its image. Additionally, we discuss how both the optics of Pakistan’s eagerness to negotiate with a proscribed group while experiencing significant internal socioeconomic and political challenges, as well as prevailing anti-Pakistan sentiment amongst Afghan Taliban militants, have contributed to the TTP’s current emboldened status.
Despite political pressure from the Pakistani government, the Afghan Taliban remain cautious in their dealings with the TTP, which has launched a significant number of cross-border attacks against Pakistani security personnel from Afghan soil. In August 2022, members of the Pakistani parliament raised concerns about rising levels of violence in KPK, associated with the return of militants from Afghanistan.
Robust TTP support and Countering Domestic Challengers
In addition to the Afghan Taliban’s eagerness to reduce their dependence on Pakistan, there are two other reasons driving the Taliban’s more passive attitude on this issue. First, given the historical ties between the two groups and shared histories, the TTP has robust support among loyalists within the various ranks of the Afghan Taliban, who are unlikely to turn on TTP members for Pakistan’s sake. Second, other domestic challenges such as dealing with threats of internal resistance and violence perpetrated by ISK have contributed to the Afghan Taliban’s reluctance. The Taliban continue to be engaged in a fierce rivalry with ISK, which further reduces its incentives to alienate TTP members and leaders. Although the Afghan Taliban claim to have eradicated the ISK threat in the country, much evidence points to the contrary — ISK remains a significant security threat to the Taliban’s governance and legitimacy. Although ISK’s initial ranks were populated by defecting TTP members, over time, several militants defected from the Afghan Taliban as well, helping to convert the group into a formidable military front against the Afghan Taliban. From this perspective, the Afghan Taliban’s reluctance to pressure the TTP makes sense, as any aggressive actions against the group could incentivize additional fighters to join oppositional groups like ISK, and also create deeper fissures within the Taliban.
The TTP’s objective to revamp its image is also evident from its current messaging to the religious, political, and tribal elders delegations sent from Pakistan to negotiate with the group. For example, TTP leaders have sought to nullify the government’s past allegations that the TTP has been supported by Pakistan’s rival intelligence agencies, predominantly India. Additionally, in its public communications, the TTP has emphasized that its willingness to negotiate an end to its fight is tied to the broader interests of the Pakistani nation. The TTP’s messaging, especially since its resurgence after 2018, has not only encompassed its goal of reshaping public opinion, but has also sought to align its grievances with other disaffected Baluch and Pashtun communities, in the hopes of strengthening its negotiating power with the Pakistani state, and ensuring its own long-term relevance.
Another source of the TTP’s strengthened negotiating position is the perceived weakness of its opponent, Pakistan, which has been experiencing high levels of socioeconomic and political instability. Mired in their own set of domestic problems, Pakistani government and military officials come across as beleaguered, desperate for a peace deal to curtail terrorism. This perception is evident from the tones taken by the TTP’s leader, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, and spokesperson Muhammad Khurasani in their public statements since last October when these negotiations became public knowledge. For example, the TTP attributes Pakistan’s problems of inflation and taxes, rising ethnic strife, and government mismanagement of natural disasters to the “the [Pakistani] government’s cruel policies”, the corrupt practices of its civil and military leaders, and a lack of Shari’a implementation.
According to insider accounts, the TTP only agreed to negotiate with Pakistan following the Afghan Taliban’s recommendation to do so soon after their Kabul takeover. This discussion took place when a top TTP delegation, led by Noor Wali Mehsud, went to Kabul to congratulate the Afghan Taliban on their historic victory against the United States. The meeting was attended by Afghan Taliban heavyweights, including deputy prime minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, defense minister Mullah Muhammad Yaqub, and deputy ministers for interior and defense Sadar Ibrahim and Mullah Fazil Akhund, respectively, among others. The Taliban leaders expressed their deep gratitude to the TTP for its support during the insurgency years, which they acknowledged to be pivotal in their victory over the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.
It was during this meeting that the Afghan Taliban relayed the Pakistani military’s offer to the TTP- to initiate talks and reach a negotiated political settlement. While the TTP were free to respond to Pakistan’s offer as they wished, the Taliban promised to support the TTP to obtain a dignified political settlement. Interestingly, according to sources, the Afghan Taliban’s offer to mediate came as a surprise to the TTP delegation. Although the TTP expressed their distrust of the Pakistani state, the delegation members indicated their willingness to negotiate with Pakistan on the basis of the Taliban’s recommendation, and their promised support.
Abdul Sayed is an independent researcher on jihadism and the politics and security of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Abdul has a master’s degree in political science from Lund University, Sweden. He is currently working on projects related to violent extremist organizations and transnational jihadism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Abdul regularly provides analysis for the BBC Monitoring service, has published opinion pieces in mainstream outlets like the Washington Post, and and is a go-to source for journalists across the globe who are writing on militancy in the region. View his personal website here. He tweets at @abdsayedd.
Amira Jadoon is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Clemson University. Prior to joining Clemson in Fall 2022, she worked at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (2017–2022), where she was jointly appointed in the Dept. of Social Sciences, and the Combating Terrorism Center. Her research projects relate to the topics of international, state, and human security. Within these overarching topics, her work examines the interaction between international policy tools and domestic conflict processes, as well as the various causes and consequences of political violence and terrorism. View her personal website here. She tweets at @AmiraJadoon