The Afghan Taliban's relationship with the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan could come to an impasse as the peace process matures in Afghanistan.
In early March the Taliban ambushed Afghan security forces in Khost province, destroying a convoy. This was nothing new - such incidents are common in war-torn Afghanistan - but the episode was noteworthy because it seemed to involve fighters from a Pakistani terrorist organisation, the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP is often referred to in the media as the 'Pakistani Taliban'.
The Afghan Taliban “officially claimed the attack”, said Faran Jeffery, deputy director of Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism (ITCT), who documented the operation on Twitter. The Taliban’s statement made no mention of TTP, but Jeffery heard of its involvement from local sources.
Contacted by TRT World, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid would neither confirm nor deny TTP’s role in the incident.
The Taliban is not supposed to host organisations that threaten the security of America or its allies, according to an agreement it signed with the US in Doha last year. But the TTP has not only attacked the US, it also routinely targets Pakistan. Its presence in Afghanistan could amount to a violation of the Doha deal.
A UN report last year assessed that there were more than 6,000 Pakistani foreign fighters in Afghanistan, most belonging to TTP. These fighters not only fight with the Afghan Taliban but also stage cross-border attacks against Pakistan. According to the UN’s latest figures, there were more than 100 such attacks from July to October last year.
The Taliban has in the past denied that it hosts foreign fighters. But, when asked about this matter by TRT World, Mujahid would neither confirm nor deny the presence of TTP members in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. The US State Department declined to comment for this story, and Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not reply to emailed questions.
While much of the focus has been on Al Qaeda’s continuing relationship with the Taliban, less attention has been paid to TTP, a brutal terrorist organisation which wreaked havoc in Pakistan from 2007 to 2014 and seems to be undergoing a resurgence after several years of degraded capability.
TTP is a similar, but distinct, movement from the Afghan Taliban. While the latter emerged in the 1990s, TTP originated in the years following the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, when pro-Taliban Pakistani tribesmen along with Arab, Chechen, and Central Asian militants fled into Pakistan’s tribal areas and coalesced to form a new umbrella group, TTP, in 2007.
Where loyalties lie
TTP has from its inception supported the insurgency in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the Afghan Taliban and helping to shelter its fighters in Pakistan. TTP’s emirs have repeatedly pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban’s leader, although the two groups have separate chains of command.
Moreover, the Haqqani Network – part of the Afghan Taliban – has helped to repair divisions in the fissiparous TTP. “Both Jalal and Siraj Haqqani mediated jirgas to resolve organisational issues and factionalism in the TTP,” said Asfandyar Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation.
However, although the two groups’ aims overlap, they do not match. “The Afghan Taliban, while it has ties to international terror groups, is a local insurgency targeting the Afghan state,” said Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.
“The Pakistani Taliban targets the Pakistani state, and when it had more strength, it also had overseas targets in its crosshairs, including America,” Kugelman told TRT World. TTP, unlike the Afghan Taliban, has been designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US.
The two also have different sponsors. The Afghan Taliban receives sanctuary from Pakistan, while the TTP has allegedly been backed by the Afghan government. Afghanistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Islamabad insists that India backs the TTP, too, and produced a largely secret dossier last year that apparently contains evidence of those links. Delhi has firmly rejected such allegations.
“The two groups are cut from the same ideological cloth,” said Michael Kugelman, both followers of the Deobandi school of Sunni Hanafi Islam. But TTP is “much closer” to the global jihadist agenda of “targeting the far enemy”, Kugelman told TRT World. It has attacked Chinese nationals and tried to bomb Times Square in New York City in 2010.
While both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban work with Al Qaeda, in TTP’s case the relationship is stronger. “Al Qaeda has played an instrumental role in the foundation, rise, and expansion of TTP,” said Abdul Sayed, an independent researcher on jihadism and the politics and security of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
The TTP’s leadership “sought Al Qaeda counselling or approval” in important decisions, Sayed told TRT World, referring to documents seized from the Bin Laden compound. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the group’s regional affiliate, has also participated in cross-border attacks with TTP, Sayed said.
Although the Afghan Taliban and TTP are largely Pashtun organisations and derive a sense of fraternity on that basis, they mostly hail from different areas, with the Afghan Taliban mainly consisting of tribes from Afghanistan, and the TTP dominated by the Mehsud clan of South Waziristan in the Pakistani tribal belt.
The Afghan Taliban is also more unified than TTP. While the former has remained united despite repeated attempts by its adversaries to split the movement, TTP disintegrated after the appointment of a controversial non-Mehsud emir, Fazlullah, in 2013, and also suffered high-level defections to the local Daesh franchise, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK).
Fazlullah died in a US drone strike in 2018, and the leadership of the TTP returned to the Mehsuds under Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud. Factions that had previously split off from the movement, such as Jamaat-ul Ahrar, returned to the fold and the TTP reunited in 2020, apparently with Al Qaeda’s help.
Wali, a scholar and former party worker, is more politically savvy than his predecessors. Soon after taking over, he issued a new code of conduct that sought to enforce his authority. In a further effort to impose unity, Wali apparently tried to centralise the group’s revenues, according to Faran Jeffery.
Hearts and minds
In a likely effort to boost their legitimacy with local people and move away from the sort of flamboyant, indiscriminate violence seen in the TTP’s 2014 assault on a school in Peshawar, which killed more than 130 children, the code of conduct also limits attacks on religious sects, healthcare and educational institutions.
This echoes similar ‘hearts and minds’ efforts by the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to rein in extreme violence and differentiate their movements from the notoriously brutal and sectarian ISK, which has emerged as a rival group in the region.
The TTP has also tried to diversify its recruitment to include other ethnic groups and has mentioned the Balochistan insurgency and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in its propaganda, according to Faran Jeffery.
TTP makes clear that it does “not entirely agree with the ideology” of those movements, Jeffery said, but claims to sympathise with their suffering at the hands of the Pakistani establishment. The PTM strongly opposes the Taliban and is not a militant outfit, rather a protest movement.
Wali’s reforms have reaped rewards for TTP, which is now staging a comeback in Pakistan. Fighters reportedly returned to Waziristan in large numbers last year. Attacks are on the up, with 2020 registering the first year-on-year increase of terrorist incidents in Pakistan since 2012. There are also reports of kidnapping and extortion.
The TTP could become even more dangerous if the Afghan Taliban seizes power in Kabul. A Taliban victory would be “bad for Pakistan”, said Hassan Abbas, a professor at National Defense University and author of The Taliban Revival, because “the Pakistani religious elements will feel more empowered.”
However, the Taliban may have taken steps to control TTP in Afghanistan, asking its fighters to register and cease recruitment and attacks against foreign countries in an apparent effort to comply with the Doha agreement. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid would neither confirm nor deny these reports.
Furthermore, the Haqqani Network apparently tried to broker a truce between TTP and the Pakistani authorities in 2020. But, according to new reporting by The Diplomat, those Haqqani-facilitated talks broke down, leading to a spike in violence this year.
Zabihullah Mujahid at first denied to TRT World that the Haqqani network was mediating a peace deal. When asked to comment on The Diplomat’s recent reporting, which emerged after his initial denial, he did not reply.
The Haqqanis have repeatedly tried to mediate in the past, acting as a “diplomatic interface” between Pakistan and the TTP, according to scholars Don Rassler and Vahid Brown. Such efforts have never had lasting success.
The Taliban has generally been hesitant to push TTP too hard. “The Afghan Taliban, or for that matter the Haqqanis, could have done more to restrain the TTP from attacking Pakistan but that hasn't happened,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran Pakistani journalist.
“The Afghan Taliban has never meaningfully condemned or restrained the TTP from violence in Pakistan,” Asfandyar Mir told TRT World. It did criticise the TTP’s heinous attack on the school in Peshawar, but even Al Qaeda condemned that atrocity, according to Mir.
Its permissive treatment of TTP could be a matter of internal politics. Cracking down on foreign militants might alienate the Taliban’s rank and file, who view these fighters as brothers in arms, and fragment the movement.
Moreover, many Taliban members resent Pakistan for its interference in their affairs and would be unhappy if the leadership betrayed their allies at Islamabad’s behest. The Taliban “don’t want to be seen as Pakistan’s proxies,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai.
There is also the risk that TTP fighters might defect to other groups if the Taliban tries to limit their activities. According to Hassan Abbas, the Taliban is lenient with TTP, “otherwise those Pakistani Taliban may go to Daesh.”
The US is supposed to remove its remaining forces from Afghanistan by early May in line with the Doha agreement. But peace talks have made little progress and there are real fears that the Taliban will seize power if American troops withdraw.
Pakistan has repeatedly supported an inclusive government in Afghanistan and recently joined other countries in opposing a Taliban takeover. And well it might, because with a Taliban regime in Kabul, the TTP threat to Pakistan could grow even stronger.