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Friday, April 12, 2024

Going Around in Circles: Af-Pak Relations from TTP to TTP

With the 2020 US-Taliban agreement and the subsequent fall of Kabul, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), emerged as a great beneficiary of the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of power. One of the largest terrorist organizations in Af-Pak with an estimated number of fighters up to 6,000 as per UN Intelligence in 2023, the TTP constitutes the major cause of discord between the Afghan Taliban government and Pakistan.

The TTP’s current chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud—who has fought alongside the Afghan Taliban since 1996-97 against the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance—is a revolutionary organizer. Since 2018, he has worked hard to make the outfit rise from the ashes of fission, building it into a consolidated formidable force that is feared to be well on its way to becoming an umbrella group for foreign fighters

Receiving militant training and ideological direction from al-Qaeda, intelligence and explosive devices from the China-focused ETIM/TIP, and shelter and operational freedom from the Afghan Taliban, the TTP has strongly evolved from an organization to an ideology. This is the ideology of the continuation of ‘jihad’ from the ‘now-Islamic’ Afghanistan to the ‘US-influenced’ Pakistan as the next stage—for if this ‘jihad’ is a religious duty, it is illogical and dishonest to carry it out in one state and halt it in the other. Hence, it is understandable why the TTP now solely focuses on targeting Pakistan’s security forces as opposed to civilians, ultimately for political power.

Alleging that TTP violence has grown by 60% since the takeover of the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan has repeatedly called for the Kabul administration to rein in the TTP and also demanded the condemnation of its attacks. With all of Pakistan’s demands and even the Taliban-brokered TTP-Pakistan dialogue eventually proving fruitless, it resorted to what former US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, referred to as “coercive diplomacy”, by expelling Afghan refugees many of whom were claimed to be involved in “acts of terrorism”

Besides, the key Torkham transit trade crossing on the Durand Line was also closed for nine days in September 2023. Pakistan even threatened the Taliban government with airstrikes inside Afghan territory to dismantle the TTP, and discontinued its diplomatic efforts for the international recognition of the Islamist regime.

Pakistan’s expectation from the Taliban’s rise to power was that their regime would take care of Pakistani interests, given that the state had created and aided the group since the 1990s. These interests include keeping Afghanistan free of Indian influence and eliminating the TTP being an anti-Pakistan group. 

Oppositely, the Taliban defense minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob expressed willingness to send army officers to India for military training. Further, the Taliban freed 780 TTP commanders and fighters from prisons as the former were assuming power in Kabul, before aiding the latter’s anti-Pakistan operations. 

Pakistan’s demand, under the Doha agreement, to not allow the TTP to use Afghan land against Pakistan’s security forces, was flatly dismissed by the Taliban government’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, citing that the deal was only between the Taliban and the US. Moreover, the Taliban authorities have repeatedly called the TTP’s terrorism inside Pakistan an ”internal problem”

The position that since Pakistan was not a party to the Doha agreement, the Taliban are not obliged to stop the TTP from using Afghan soil against the former under this pact is technically flawed. This is because Part Two of the treaty mentions that the Taliban would not let any group use Afghan soil against the US and its “allies”, which obviously include Pakistan.  

On a historical note, this nonchalance on the part of the Taliban rulers to not entertain Pakistan as a party to the US-Taliban Doha pact is also reminiscent of the Durand Line agreement between the 19th-century Afghan Kingdom and British India. Just as Pakistan demands security under the Doha deal, it claims the eastern Pashtun land under the Durand Line pact. 

Interestingly, the Afghan side considers Pakistan a party to neither agreement, and therefore disputes Pakistan’s politico-legal stances. Thus, the souring of relations that originally began from the first pact continues till today through the latest one.

Ultimately, Pakistan was compelled to reconsider its previous distinction between the ‘good’ (pro-Pakistan) and ‘bad’ (anti-Pakistan) Taliban. Pakistan’s special representative for Afghanistan Asif Durrani even alleged that the TTP is ‘controlled’ by the Afghan Taliban while also lamenting that ‘peace’ in Afghanistan has become a “nightmare” for Pakistan. The Pakistanis are also said to have provided the Taliban government clear options of ‘either choosing the TTP or Pakistan’.

The harsh responses towards the Taliban’s support of the TTP, expectedly, did not go down well with the authorities in Kabul, who, after assuming authority, wish to increasingly assert their independence from Pakistan. Since they have now acquired what they fought 20 years for, their dependence on their former benefactor is reduced. As a result, they are more in defiance mode rather than in a mood to comply.

Unsurprisingly, high-ranking Taliban officials reacted sharply to Pakistan’s expulsion of Afghan refugees on a rather short notice, with Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund and Defense Minister Yaqoob issuing threats conveying vengeance. Another official, Kaleemullah Afghan, berated Pakistan as a “US stooge” that simultaneously talks of ‘jihad’, expressing anger over the deportation of Afghan refugees from “occupied Pashtunistan”. 

Besides reacting aggressively at this tactic meant to punish the Taliban government for backing the TTP, the Taliban authorities also appear to be frustrated with the Pakistani military for its refusal to negotiate with and make the demanded concessions to the TTP. One of these concessions, for the army’s high command, is too huge to be acceptable, that is, Pakistan reversing the 2018 constitutional merger of the ex-Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

In this situation, rather than dealing strictly with the TTP as per Pakistan’s demand, the Taliban only appear to be bonding more closely with the TTP with which the group shares much more in common than it does even with longstanding ally al-Qaeda. For instance, the TTP’s flag and its very name are inspired by the Afghan Taliban’s. Furthermore, the TTP named its media wing ‘Umar Media’ after the Afghan Taliban’s late first commander, Mullah Umar. 

Thus it is no secret that the Taliban’s foot soldiers are enthusiastic about aiding the TTP in its anti-Pakistan jihadist mission, with even registration having taken place for violent activities against the Pakistani security forces. The sentiment that being ‘US-influenced’, Pakistan is a ‘legitimate target’ for jihadism ‘like the previous Afghan government’, runs across the Taliban soldiers equally as the TTP fighters. 

With regard to the Taliban leaders, they appear in a mood to reflect the Afghan people’s understandable hostility towards Pakistan and aid the TTP in its fight. Pakistan’s unilateral fencing of the Durand Line and alleged harboring of anti-Taliban Daesh-Khorasan leaders have also increased the Taliban’s resentment of the Pakistani establishment which will certainly benefit the TTP, both of which disdain the state as a “Punjabi fascist” setup. Moreover, the TTP-allied Haqqani Network’s expanding influence in northeastern Afghanistan will further enable the TTP to mount further attacks on the Pakistani security forces. 

As a side note, this deteriorating situation does not bode well for US homeland security. Although the TTP has made a deliberate effort to present itself as a Pakistan-oriented group having “no external agenda”, anyone familiar with jihadist ideology understands that it recognizes no human-made borders. For if the overthrow of the ‘infidel’ systems and establishment of a global ‘Islamic state’ is a ‘religious duty’, this cannot be confined to only a specific region. This means the TTP cannot be trusted to not participate in potential planning and execution of US-directed attacks in the long term.

Looking ahead, the prospects particularly for Af-Pak relations do not appear bright in the future. With a brotherly Taliban government, acquisition of weapons left behind by US forces, operational space in Balochistan through allying with separatists, a growth of fellow anti-Pakistan jihadist organizations inviting recruits, and a war-weary and uninterested America, the TTP enjoys favorable conditions to execute its anti-Pakistan agenda. 

Essentially, the Af-Pak relationship at this time and indeed for the foreseeable future is bound to go around in circles: beginning from the sour relations caused by the TTP’s deadly operations in Pakistan and ending at the same.

author avatar
Naveen Khan
Naveen Khan is a nonresident research fellow with the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Akron, Ohio, USA. Specializing in the analysis of Afghanistan-Pakistan geopolitical affairs and extremist-terrorist trends, she is currently engaged in conducting research and writing threat assessment briefs on the major terrorist organizations in Afghanistan-Pakistan, such as al-Qaeda, Daesh-Khorasan, and the Haqqani Network, intended for US intelligence professionals. Additionally, she has participated as a research team member of the Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG), in assembling the NATO-sponsored ‘Counter-Terrorism Reference Curriculum (CTRC)’, which recommends defense cooperation strategies for governments worldwide. In the past, Ms. Khan has conducted and published original primary research on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region on political violence, Pashtun ethnicity, and social conflicts. She has also written on the notion of an 'Islamic Revolution', Taliban ideology, Lashkar-e-Taiba's operations in Indian Kashmir, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan's terrorist activities in the Pakistan-governed former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Her research has been published in the Diplomat, the Geopolitical Monitor, Modern Diplomacy, and at two of India's top think-tanks. She has also been invited to share her expertise at high-level international counter-terrorism conferences in Europe, and awarded an official commendation in London following her contributions to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism/Counter-Terrorism (PCVE/CT) by the National Coordinator for ‘Prevent’ (the British government’s CT strategy). In addition, Ms. Khan designed and taught Sociology courses at Pakistan's top Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, focusing critically on socio-political issues, with a key focus on conducting independent research. She holds an MSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics (LSE), with a Distinction in the History of Political Islam.
Naveen Khan
Naveen Khan
Naveen Khan is a nonresident research fellow with the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at the University of Akron, Ohio, USA. Specializing in the analysis of Afghanistan-Pakistan geopolitical affairs and extremist-terrorist trends, she is currently engaged in conducting research and writing threat assessment briefs on the major terrorist organizations in Afghanistan-Pakistan, such as al-Qaeda, Daesh-Khorasan, and the Haqqani Network, intended for US intelligence professionals. Additionally, she has participated as a research team member of the Partnership for Peace Consortium’s Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG), in assembling the NATO-sponsored ‘Counter-Terrorism Reference Curriculum (CTRC)’, which recommends defense cooperation strategies for governments worldwide. In the past, Ms. Khan has conducted and published original primary research on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region on political violence, Pashtun ethnicity, and social conflicts. She has also written on the notion of an 'Islamic Revolution', Taliban ideology, Lashkar-e-Taiba's operations in Indian Kashmir, and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan's terrorist activities in the Pakistan-governed former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Her research has been published in the Diplomat, the Geopolitical Monitor, Modern Diplomacy, and at two of India's top think-tanks. She has also been invited to share her expertise at high-level international counter-terrorism conferences in Europe, and awarded an official commendation in London following her contributions to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism/Counter-Terrorism (PCVE/CT) by the National Coordinator for ‘Prevent’ (the British government’s CT strategy). In addition, Ms. Khan designed and taught Sociology courses at Pakistan's top Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, focusing critically on socio-political issues, with a key focus on conducting independent research. She holds an MSc in Sociology from the London School of Economics (LSE), with a Distinction in the History of Political Islam.

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