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Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan: Unravelling Pakistan’s Enduring Threat

Rajneesh Singh is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 16, 2023


    The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) since its formation in 2007 has emerged as one of Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist organisations. Following the breakdown of Imran Khan government’s peace negotiations in 2021 and subsequent surge in TTP’s terrorist actions, it is likely the group, inspired by Afghan Taliban, is working to take control over territories in Pakistan’s tribal areas with the eventual aim of extending its control over all of Pakistan.

    On 4 November, as reported by Pakistani analyst, Tehreek-e-Jihad (TEJ) Pakistan, an affiliate of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacked Pakistan Air Force MM Alam Air Base at Mianwali, Punjab leading to loss of 14 aircrafts and 35 military men.1 The attack serves as a reminder of the resurgence of TTP and the threat posed by the group to Pakistan.

    This Brief delves into the TTP's genesis, objectives, its fluctuating fortunes of decline and resurgence, and the Pakistan government's efforts to neutralize the TTP, both militarily and politically. Additionally, the intricate dynamics of the TTP's alliance with the Afghan Taliban which renders it a formidable and seemingly existential threat to Pakistan are analysed.

    Following its formation in 2007, the TTP has emerged as one of Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist organisations. It has to its (dis)credit some of the bloodiest attacks in the country’s history—attack on PNS Mehran airbase in 2011; an attack on Karachi’s international airport in 2014; and massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar on 16 December 2014 that killed around 150 people out of whom 134 were students. On 15 June 2014, Pakistan Army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb [Strike of Muhammad’s Sword] in North Waziristan to re-impose state’s monopoly over violence. Barely six months after it was launched, the TTP struck in Peshawar Army Public School, which led to further intensification of the operation. A year later, Pakistan’s military claimed 2,763 terrorists killed, 837 hideouts destroyed, 253 tons explosive recovered. The veracity of these figures has not been independently confirmed and various sources have decried loss of civilian life and property.2 Operation Zarb-e-Azb, US drone operations and factors intrinsic to the organisation precipitated TTP’s steep decline, and by 2016, TTP’s capability to launch terrorist attacks within Pakistan had drastically weakened.3

    TTP which was pushed out of the tribal belt by 2014–2015 saw a resurgence around 2020, coinciding with the rise of Afghan Taliban, north of Durand Line. The Imran Khan government attempted peace negotiations with TTP after the Taliban came to power in Kabul in August 2021 and mediated the talks, which collapsed in late 2021 even after there was an agreement in favour of a month-long ceasefire in early November 2021. There was again an attempt to hold dialogue in May 2022, mediated again by Afghan Taliban which resulted in an indefinite ceasefire in June 2022, which lasted till September 2022. The sticking point in the talks was reversal of merger of FATA with Khyber Pakthunkhwa and release of TTP cadres. Since then, there has been a sharp increase in terrorist attacks perpetuated by TTP culminating in attack on Pakistan’s Air Force base in Mianwali. This attack has been claimed by TJP, an affiliate of TTP.4

    The Genesis and Relationship with Pakistan Army

    Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, thousands of Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists crossed over into Pakistan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as well in parts of the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan. Pakistani tribesmen and madrassa students were recruited by the Afghan Taliban leaders, with the complicity of some of the local tribal leaders, to fight US and NATO forces.5 The atrocities committed by Pakistani army, during the counterterrorist operations, and the resultant loss of civilian life and property, provided further impetus to insurgency in the region and led to greater coordination amongst the terrorist groups. The US and Pakistani forces targeted al Qaeda creating an environment for the resurgence of Afghan Taliban and the rise of TTP in the various tribal agencies. The Islamist forces in FATA that combined to form TTP later targeted local tribal elders, disrupted the existing political structures, and instituted their own version of Islamic governance.6 It was in this environment that the TTP emerged in December 2007 as an umbrella organisation under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud, a terrorist leader from South Waziristan.7

    Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, former Director General of ISI, and Military Intelligence of Pakistan, attributes the rise of TTP to the military operation of 2004 in South Waziristan. He suggests that the tribesmen took up arms against the state because Pakistan Army violated their traditions and agreements with them.8

    Pakistan Army has a long history of raising and collaborating with terrorist organisations of various hues. Some of these terrorist organisations have been granted special favours for their perceived strategic usefulness, while military operations have been launched to destroy others. The escape of former spokesperson of TTP, Ehsanullah Ehsan, from the custody of Pakistan Army in January 2020 is intriguing and is an apt commentary on duplicitous relationship between terrorist organisations and Pakistani establishment. Ehsan, on behalf of the TTP and later its breakaway incarnation Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), had claimed the slaughter of thousands of Pakistanis including the attack on Nobel-laureate Malala Yousufzai. During his detention, Ehsan was housed in a villa in Peshawar’s suburban Hayatabad Township amid civilians, indicating that there was not even an intention of bringing him to justice.9 He has also claimed that, during his time in detention, Pakistani authorities had given him a hit list of people who they would like to be killed in the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.10

    Objectives of TTP

    Amira Jadoon, who has worked at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and has researched extensively on TTP, submits that the group’s key goals included implementing sharia law, fighting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan (prior to US withdrawal), and engaging in jihad against the Pakistan Army. She cites a statement by Baitullah Mehsud’s spokesman, Maulvi Omar, of December 2007 that a key reason for the creation of the TTP was to present a united front against the Pakistan Army’s operations.11

    TTP since its inception has been a loose umbrella group of a number of smaller factions with many competing agendas. Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Mullah Nazir diverged with Baitullah Mehsud’s aggressive stance against Pakistani state and support to foreign terrorists. These and other differences led to internal dissensions and breakups and mergers of various groups and sub-groups of TTP weakening the organisation.12 Internal discords coupled with Pakistani Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb forced TTP to relocate to Afghanistan towards the end of 2014. The group actively supported Afghan Taliban’s war with US led NATO forces leading up to their withdrawal in 2021. Taliban’s victory emboldened and strengthened TTP. The group then turned its attention to Pakistani state after carrying out series of mergers and structural changes in its organisation. The decision making was centralised and the group was armed with new and sophisticated weapons. With Afghan Taliban in power, the TTP now enjoys ‘strategic depth’, enhancing its military potential and survivability against Pakistani army operations.

    Following the breakdown of Imran Khan government’s peace negotiations in 2021 and subsequent surge in TTP’s terrorist actions, it is likely the group, inspired by Afghan Taliban, is working to take control over territories in Pakistan’s tribal areas with the eventual aim of extending its control over all of Pakistan.13

    The Rise and Fall of TTP

    An analysis of TTP’s operations for the period 2007—2020 indicates that the inception and consolidation phase of the group lasted from 2007 to 2009. It was involved in 269 attacks during this period, primarily in FATA and KP. It was in 2010 when the activities of TTP peaked, with the group involved in 402 attacks. There was a significant drop in TTP’s activities in the following years with the group being involved in 202 attacks in 2011 and 392 attacks in 2012. Thereafter, it was a period of steady decline in TTP’s activities with 96 attacks being recorded in 2015. The reduction in terrorist activities was a result of multiple factors and not the least, Pakistan army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which was launched in June 2014. The group was involved in 21 attacks in 2018—lowest since its inception in 2007. By the end of the decade, the group’s operational potential had weakened significantly.14

    TTP saw a decline in its operational capabilities due to neutralisation of its leaders at frequent intervals. Baitullah Mehsud, a veteran of the Afghan “jihad”, and founder of TTP was killed in a drone strike in August 2009. He was replaced by Hakimullah Mehsud, the group’s new leader, who was also neutralised, like his predecessor, in a drone strike, in November 2013. His death opened cracks in the TTP alliance.15 The group splintered after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud as his successor, Mullah Fazlullah, a non-Mehsud and non-tribal, could not hold alliance together. The group suffered from infighting and discord. It was around this time that the Pakistani military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which struck a critical blow to the group.16

    The TTP leadership fled to Afghanistan, where it concentrated in eastern Afghanistan—Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. Mullah Fazlullah was later killed in a drone strike in June 2018 and the leadership was passed back to a Mehsud-Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud. The challenge before the new leader was to bring together the various factions which had parted ways and undertake new recruitment. The internal rivalries and military operations resulted in sharp fall in numbers of the members of TTP. In mid-2009, the TTP was estimated to have between sixteen and twenty thousand members. The numbers peaked in 2012 when it was estimated that the group consisted of twenty and twenty-five thousand members.17 By late 2019, however, the US Department of Defense estimated the number of TTP fighters in Afghanistan to be around three to five thousand, and a UN report in 2020 put this figure at around six thousand.18

    Reorganisation and Resurgence of TTP

    In 2017, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud wrote a book, Inquilabi-e-Mehsud, which analysed the grounds for downfall of the group. The book highlighted kidnapping for ransom, extortions, and targeted killings of innocents as the main reasons.19 Later, when he took over the leadership of the group, the Mufti disseminated a ‘Code of Conduct’ which aimed to bring about greater discipline by announcing rules of engagement, legitimate targets, and procedure to be followed for suicide attacks. He also reorganised the group’s organisational structure and concentrated greater authority in the central leadership and brought about greater clarity regarding the chain of command.

    Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud’s tribal affiliations facilitated him to bring in the Mehsud factions back into the fold of TTP, and won over the support of Taliban from Mohmand, Bajaur, and other tribal districts. He also managed to establish operational and logistic support relations with al-Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban. The Mufti also relocated the headquarters of the group to Bermal district which provided easy access into the former TTP stronghold of south Waziristan.20

    Many former factions came back into the fold of TTP in 2020-Hakimullah Mehsud Group, Amjad Farouqi group, Usman Saifullah Kurd group and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar. Among the factions, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar were involved in many deadly attacks within Pakistan, especially against Pakistani security forces.

    The Sheheyar Mehsud Group merged with TTP in October 2021. The reintegration of splinter groups improved the TTP’s overall standing, reach, and ability to strike at targets within Pakistan. The mergers are also suggestive of the future course of action of the group—TTP is unlikely to dilute its demands of extending sharia law all over Pakistan.21

    Taliban’s Return to Power Provided Boost to TTP’s Jihadist Agenda

    The TTP was the first terrorist group to officially celebrate Taliban’s takeover within hours of the group entering Kabul. In a statement released on 17 August 2021, the TTP declared the Taliban’s return to power as a great victory for the jihadi project.22 The two groups share ideological and operational linkages, yet there is one issue of divergence between them. The TTP has announced jihad against the Pakistan Army, while the Afghan Taliban has no such stated policy. The Taliban publicly discourages its members from fighting Pakistani state, but a large majority of its members consider it a religious and national obligation to support the TTP from an ideological perspective and due to tribal and personal connections cemented in the last two decades of insurgency.

    Despite this difference, TTP prizes its special relationship with the Afghan Taliban. TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, in a video purportedly shot in 2021, had declared that his outfit came under the larger "umbrella" of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). The claim was refuted by Afghan Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid in an interview with Arab News.23 Afghan Taliban’s rebuttal notwithstanding, the TTP leader’s assertion is indicative of close bond between the two groups.

    The TTP has fought alongside and provided recruits to Afghan Taliban in their war against US led Western forces and the West supported Afghan government. Post Operation Zarb-e-Azb, TTP terrorists found shelter in Afghanistan and used safe havens in remote border areas to conduct cross-border attacks. When the Afghan Taliban came to power after the withdrawal of US forces, it released the jailed TTP leaders.24 This led to souring of relations between the Pakistani establishment and the Afghan Taliban. The relationship received further setback when despite Pakistani demands, Afghan Taliban have not denied shelter to TTP or attempted to dissuade them from attacking Pakistani forces.25

    The withdrawal of US forces also helped the TTP secure modern weapons, including the sophisticated M24 sniper rifle, M4 carbines with Trijicon ACOG scopes, and the M16A4 rifle with Pulsar Trail XQ38/XQ50 thermal scope.26 These weapons have enhanced TTP’s operation capability against Pakistani security forces. The group’s resurgence has seen a dramatic rise in terror activities and the arc of terror has expanded from the tribal belt to major cities in Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh province. The number of TTP-claimed attacks more than tripled between 2020 and 2022, with the monthly attack average increasing from 14.5 in 2020 to 23.5 in 2021 and 45.8 in 2022.27

    The US forces’ hasty, chaotic, and humiliating exit from Afghanistan in August 2021 culminated in Taliban’s return to power. The Afghan Taliban’s astounding success in defeating the sole superpower has emboldened the TTP which believes it can replicate the success against the Pakistani ‘infidel’ state.28   

    Failed Attempts at Rapprochement

    Shortly after Taliban took over the reins of power in Kabul, Pakistan government sought the group’s assistance to facilitate peace negotiations with TTP. Despite initial reluctance, the Afghan Taliban was able to convince the TTP to initiate peace negotiations with the Pakistani government.29 A month-long ceasefire was announced along with peace talks on 9 November 2021. The talks broke down with TTP accusing the government of failing to honour the decisions reached earlier and launching operations in which TTP members were killed and detained by the security forces. In late 2021, TTP resumed attacks against Pakistani forces, which increased in frequency and intensity in the following months. The TTP claimed 45 attacks in December 2021 and set a record of 54 attacks in April 2022.30 The Pakistani armed forces retaliated by launching cross border air strikes31 and covert operations to neutralise TTP leadership in Afghanistan.

    Despite increased terrorist activities, the government of Pakistan and TTP in May 2022 again agreed to a ceasefire and resumed negotiations.32 Several rounds of talks were held and there were indications that a breakthrough may be possible but the negotiations again failed with TTP resuming terrorist activities across Pakistan.33 Although the TTP officially announced resumption of jihadi activities in November 2022, the attacks had begun when some of the TTP leaders were thought to have been eliminated in covert operations by the Pakistani security agencies.34 Killing of Abu Wali alias Umar Khalid Khurasani and transfer of Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed35 as the Bahawalpur corps commander in August 2022 also did not help the cause of peace negotiations.

    Is TTP an Existential Threat to Pakistan?

    Taliban’s success in Afghanistan has greatly emboldened the TTP which is increasingly reinventing and modelling along the lines of Taliban. During the Afghan war, the Taliban in 2005 had divided the country into provinces and appointed shadow governors. Along with provinces, Taliban also formed 18 commissions which acted like ministries, encompassing portfolios like political, economic, media and culture. The military commission was the most influential and important due to the ongoing war, followed by the economic one. As the Afghan Taliban acquired more terrain and expanded, they gradually set up new provinces and shadow governors to rule the territory. 

    The TTP following the similar model has adopted new administrative and operational structure. In February 2023, the group announced the formation of two zones—north and south—where nine administrative and operational units (wilayahs or shadow provinces) have been established. Later in June, establishment of wilayahs was announced in Balochistan (Qalat and Makran) followed by Punjab. Every province is headed by a shadow governor and at least a deputy, and is supervised by an intelligence officer. The TTP also has spiritual linkage with the Afghan Taliban. The TTP emir is under the direct bayt of the Afghan Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. In jihadist ideology, this oath of allegiance has secured the support of the Afghan Taliban in times of crisis.36

    The adoption of new administrative and operational structures by TTP by itself do not pose existential threat to Pakistan. However, when seen in the context of severe economic crisis in Pakistan and increasingly radicalised society, the threat posed by the exponential increase in the TTP’s operational capability and the ‘strategic depth’ provided by Afghan Taliban led IEA, the contours of Pakistan’s security dynamics alter significantly. TTP has the potential to threaten the very existence of Pakistan as a sovereign, independent entity.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.