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Friday, September 17, 2021

Explained: Why Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan may get a boost with change of guard in Afghanistan

Pakistan sees Afghanistan as a strategic partner in its conflict with India and has therefore been willing to embrace the powers that be in Kabul, even in the face of significant international backlash.

Written by Mira Patel , Edited by Explained Desk |
Updated: August 24, 2021 9:29:52 am
Pakistan and Taliban flags flutter on their respective sides while people walk through a security barrier to cross border at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Chaman, Pakistan (AP)

As the Taliban begin their governance project, countries such as China, Russia and the UK have demonstrated a willingness to work with the group. However, no country has been as overt in its support as long-time backers Pakistan. Recently, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan blamed the rushed US troop withdrawal for the resurgence of the Taliban, wiping his country’s hands of any blame. He also described members of the group residing in Pakistan as “normal civilians” and went as far as to suggest that the group’s reclaiming of Afghanistan was akin to breaking the “shackles of slavery.”

Pakistan sees Afghanistan as a strategic partner in its conflict with India and has therefore been willing to embrace the powers that be in Kabul, even in the face of significant international backlash. While some factions within the Pakistani Government have asserted their opposition to the Taliban, the vast majority seem to accept the Taliban either as a valuable ally to Islamabad or a necessary evil to preserve control in the region. However, Pakistan’s calculus towards the Taliban could prove dangerously misguided, especially if its emergence emboldens extremist groups such as the militant Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP.

Pakistan support for the Taliban

In the 1980s, the CIA and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provided arms to Afghans fighting against the Soviet Union and helped radicalise and recruit youth from around the world to participate in the jihad. In 1988, Pakistan began opening up religious schools for its roughly 3 million Afghan refugees. These madrasas went on to train students to join the Taliban, 1.5 million of whom returned to Afghanistan after the departure of the Soviets.

When the victorious mujahedeen eventually formed a government in Afghanistan in 1992, Pakistan was unhappy with the new leadership that Islamabad saw as being overly friendly with India. Therefore, when the Taliban started gaining ground in the mid-1990s, Pakistan was quick to support the movement.

After the US-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, leaders from the toppled Taliban regime sought refuge in Pakistan. Streams of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants flowed into the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Most of the Taliban fighters confined themselves to the borderlands where the Pakistan Government has been unsuccessfully trying to contain them since 2003.

The Pakistani ISI, an early backer of the Taliban, continues to exert its influence over the group. According to a report from the Carnegie Endowment Fund, the ISI has been the Taliban’s “principle external patron reportedly providing it with financial resources, training, weapons, logistical support, and (above all) a safe haven in Pakistani territory.”

The importance of the ISI to the Taliban is best represented by the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as one of two deputy leaders of the Taliban in 2015. Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani network, once described by US intelligence as a “veritable arm of the ISI,” maintains close ties with Al-Qaeda. Despite some Pakistani leaders distancing themselves from the Taliban publicly, Pakistan’s failure to unify its military, intelligence services, and political apparatus means that even if its Prime Minister and Army Chiefs withhold support, it is still possible for the Pakistan state, via the ISI to continue propping up the organisation.

Stranded people crossing the border between Pakistan Afghanistan, in Chaman, Pakistan (AP Photo/Jafar Khan)

Why Pakistan is backing the Taliban

Aside from the fact that Pakistan’s government and military are internally fractured and represent a range of different, and often competing, interests and allegiances, the main reason behind Pakistani support for the Taliban is its enduring and overwhelming fear of India.

Pakistan’s desire for strategic depth in Afghanistan to counter the regional influence of India dates back to the mid-1970s and it isn’t a policy that they look to be abandoning anytime soon. Although prominent Pakistani leaders including current Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa have indicated a willingness to change course, given Pakistan history and subsequently poor relations with almost every other group in Afghanistan, they may have few allies left apart from the Taliban.

In addition to its India concerns, Pakistan has a number of ideological reasons to support the Taliban. Since the creation of Pakistan, there have been calls from within to allow Pashtun communities living alongside the Afghanistan border to form their own independent state. The TTP for one, backs this claim. Pakistan is therefore weary of any Pashtun-led government in Afghanistan, including the past administrations of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. Somewhat confusingly, Pakistan sees the Taliban as being more concerned with Islamic fundamentalism than ethnic conflicts though they too are ethnically a Pashtun group.

Pakistani society also has some sympathy for the Taliban, largely due to the way in which the Pakistani state was formed. Pakistan’s separation from India was predicated on its desire to form an Islamic state. For Pakistan’s zealously religious citizens, defending the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia law was a way to maintain their own connection to Islam and by extension, to the Pakistani State as well.

However, on the flip side, there are also significant reasons for Pakistan to counter the rise of the Taliban. For one, Taliban rule in Afghanistan is likely to trigger a massive refugee crisis in countries like Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan. Pakistani support for the Taliban could also cost it international legitimacy, especially if the group refuses to moderate and begins to allow other extremist movements to take root on Afghan soil again.

A 2015 Pew Research Survey additionally demonstrates that the Taliban are losing support among the Pakistani people. When asked what they thought about the Taliban, 72 per cent of Pakistanis considered the group to be unfavourable, while only 6 per cent considered them to be favourable. Alongside these valid concerns, Pakistan also has to contend with the potential resurgence of the TTP and other extremist groups. While it’s unlikely that Islamabad will consider these reasons to be reason enough to distance itself from the Taliban, they are worthy of serious consideration, nonetheless. The growing threat of the TTP in particular is something that Islamabad will be extremely cognisant of.

Pakistan is also aware that despite its links to the Taliban, it will still be strategically significant to the US. The continued American involvement in Afghanistan, in whatever capacity, will require, at the very least, use of Pakistani airspace. This in turn will maintain some of Pakistan leverage with the US over its dealings with the Taliban. Additionally, Beijing, Pakistan’s biggest external ally, has demonstrated a willingness to work with the Taliban.

Therefore, in addition to its desire for regional influence, its Islamic fundamentalist roots and its own concerns over Pashtun nationalism, Pakistan continues to support the Taliban simply because it can.

People near Taliban signature white flags wait for the arrival of their relatives, who were reportedly released from prison by the Taliban in Afghanistan, at a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan (AP)

Who are the Pakistan Taliban

After members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban flocked into Pakistan in 2001, they orchestrated a campaign, described in a report by the US Institute of Peace (USIP,) as the ‘Talibanization” of FATA. Under it, Afghan Taliban leaders worked with local tribal leaders to recruit Pakistanis to fight against US and NATO forces. Those recruits later came together to form the TTP in 2007, under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. The TTP is often referred to as an umbrella organisation representing different militant groups in FATA.

According to the USIP report, the TTP’s main objectives included “implementing Sharia law, fighting US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and engaging in jihad against the Pakistani Army.” The latter, in particular, is the group’s primary goal with Mehsud’s spokesperson announcing in 2007 that the key reason behind the creation of the TTP was to present a united front against the Pakistan Army’s operations. The report notes that “the TTP’s aggressive stance towards the Pakistani state contrasted with that of other local militants” and “led to significant levels of internal dissention.”

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Its fragmentation and lack of cohesive methodology ultimately proved to be the catalyst for its demise, but in the years between 2007 and 2014, the TTP wreaked havoc across Pakistan. In 2012, the TTP was estimated to possess up to 25,000 members, who conducted terrorist attacks across Pakistan, resulting in mass bloodshed and destruction of property. Amongst their most notable attacks were an assault on Pakistan’s largest airbase in 2011, an attack on Karachi International Airport in 2014 and in the same year, a massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed 150 people, mostly students. The last attack was condemned publicly by the Afghan Taliban.

In 2014, the Pakistani military, aided by a US drone campaign, launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb to eliminate the TTP. The operation was largely successful and was a huge factor behind the decline of the group. According to the USIP report, which was published in May 2021, today “the TTP is largely a fragmented and exhausted military organisation, dispersed throughout Pakistan and in bordering Afghanistan.”

However, TTP activity has increased sharply in recent years. In 2019, reports suggested that TTP militants were intimidating residents of North and South Waziristan against playing music or letting women leave the house without a male guardian. In 2020, the group’s media wing, Umar Media, launched a new website alongside its official magazine which propagates the TTP’s ideology. Significantly, in 2020, Umar Media also announced that two splinter groups, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar, had formally rejoined the TTP. The two groups have been responsible for a number of deadly attacks inside Pakistan and have been more active than the TTP itself in recent years.

Since the start of 2021, the TTP has claimed a number of attacks across Pakistan. In the first two months of the year alone, it claimed 32 attacks, the majority of which occurred in FATA. Some analysts believe that the recent resurgence of the TTP will be fuelled further by Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The argument goes that the Taliban legitimise militant Islamic governance and by doing so, encourage their supporters and sympathisers, within and outside of Afghanistan to pursue similar objectives. Emboldened by the Taliban, the TTP could use the group’s success to recruit additional members and revitalise their campaign against the Pakistani state. However, given the TTP’s complicated relationship with the Taliban, it is unclear whether it would be able to count on the latter’s support in that endevor.

The relationship between the TTP and Taliban often runs hot and cold. It is unknown what level of association the two share but they have been known to both oppose and support each other at different points of time. Although the TTP and Taliban have similar ideological constructs, the two disagree over the former’s targeting of the Pakistani state. As Islamabad is a key ally of the Taliban, the group has attempted to persuade the TTP to focus its jihad on the Afghanistan administration alone. However, the TTP exists primarily as an organisation against the Pakistani state and without that goal, would cease to possess any external relevance.

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However, the groups have also cooperated on several campaigns, primarily after the Pakistani military operation in 2014 forced the TTP to flee into Afghanistan. There, they aided the Taliban’s military offensive against the Afghan government, offering valuable logistic support including providing suicide bombers. After the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban, the TTP released a video of its members meeting with senior Taliban leadership. The group was reportedly eager to display its close ties to the Taliban, in recognition of the value that such a relationship would hold with the Pakistani public, many of whom are openly supportive of the Taliban.

Some have gone as far as to suggest that the TTP and Taliban are intrinsically linked, with one Pakistani army chief reportedly calling them “two faces of the same coin.”

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