An uphill struggle
Arshad Yusufzai assesses the challenges posed to Pakistan’s security forces by the renewed violence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan
A sharp increase in terrorist attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against security forces in recent months has raised serious concerns among Pakistan’s government and security forces as the banned militant group expands its operations into cities away from the former tribal belt near the Pakistan-Afghanistan Durand Line border.
The TTP claimed 367 attacks in 2022, including 210 in the last four months, on security forces, police, Frontier Corps personnel and members of government-backed peace committees. The group claimed to have killed 446 people, injured another 569 and taken 48 hostages – even though a near perfect peace was observed forat least four months between May and August as the two sides agreed on a ceasefire due to the second round of peace talks between the Pakistan government and the TTP’s Afghanistan-based leadership.
However, the peace process that was facilitated in May by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) or the Afghan Taliban in Kabul and Khost could not produce lasting results, despite Afghanistan’s interim Minister of Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani overseeing the entire process. Apparently, Haqqani was the force behind at least two meetings between high-ranking government and military officials from Pakistan and TTP head Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud. Among others, his most trusted late commander Umar Khalid Khurasani was reportedly strongly opposed to peace talks with Pakistan’s security forces because of his lack of trust in the latter fulfilling their commitments.
Hailing from the Mohmand Tribal District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in Pakistan, the 45-year-old Umar Khalid Khurasani (actual name Abdul Wali Mohmand) was one of the founding members of the TTP. He had a $3 million reward placed on his head in 2018 by the US State Department’s Reward for Justice Program. Pakistan had also placed him on its list of most wanted men, with PKR 25 million (£87,741) on his head, for masterminding deadly terrorist attacks in KP, Punjab and Sindh provinces. On 7 August last year, Khurasaniwas killed by a roadside Improvised Explosive Device (IED), along with three other TTP senior commanders, Mufti Hassan, Hafiz Dawlat Khan and Hassan Ali, in the Birmal area of Paktika province in Afghanistan.
The killing of Khurasani inside Afghanistan came as a shock to the TTP, as they could find no clear motive or enemy behind the act. Some leaders suspected mercenaries on Pakistan’s payroll. However, Khurasani’s killing, coupled with a series of security operations against TTP members in Pakistan, seriously damaged the TTP’s trust in Pakistan’s sincerity about seeking peace with the terrorist group.
Although the group did not immediately announce an end to the ceasefire, a rapid increase in attacks against security forceswas observed as the TTP claimed 39 and 43 strikes in September and October 2022 respectively. That number went up to 59 in November, and on the 28 November, the TTP formally announced an end to the ceasefire, accusing Pakistani security forces of violating it by conducting military operations against TTP members in different parts of KP. Reportedly, 69 terrorist attacks of various types were claimed by the group in December 2022. It has already claimed 37 attacks in the first three weeks of January and has shown its presence in at least 21 out of 38 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
As one might expect, most of the 2022 attacks happened in areas of the TTP’s strongest presence, North Waziristan and South Waziristan districts of KP on the border with Afghanistan’s Khost province. The group claimed 73 attacks in North and 56 in South Waziristan. Worryingly, the TTP has extended its reach into other parts of KP and the rest of the country as it claimed 12 attacks in Pakistan’s South-Western Balochistanprovince. Similarly, three attacks in the Punjab province and two each in Sindh province’s capital Karachi and the federal capital Islamabad were also claimed by the TTP.
Formed in December 2007 by the late Taliban commander BaitullahMehsud, the TTP was initially an alliance of five militant groups from the then Federally Administered Tribal Area of Waziristan, with the objective of overthrowing the government of Pakistan through a terrorist campaign. The group’s reach quickly spread to other tribal areas as more militants started joining. From its formation till now, the TTP has been headed by four commanders. Interestingly, all previous commanders before current leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud were killed in strikes by CIA-operated drones. The group’s founding commander, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan in August 2009, while his successor Hakimullah Mehsud led the group from August 2009 till November 2013, when he met his end in the same manner in North Waziristan. Mullah Fazalullah from Swat district of KP was the longest serving and only non-Mehsud leader of the TTP. He was killed in a US drone strike in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in June 2018.
The TTP’s current leader, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud (also known as Abu Mansoor Asim), has spearheaded the TTP since June 2018. Besides successfully reuniting over 20 Islamist and Jihadist groups under the TTP umbrella, Noor Wali has completely changed the tactics of engagement. Instead of carrying out indiscriminate attacks without distinguishing between civilians and combatants, the group is now targeting only security forces and law enforcment agencies.
While ambushing and planting bombs in the path of patrolling parties, suicide attacks on police and army checkpoints, retaliatory strikes and occasional multi-tiered attacks are among different modes of TTP hits,their favourite is seemingly the ‘hit and run’, as they oftenfind their targets off-guard. However, their most effective fighting tactic is targeted attacks using sophisticated sniper guns, American M16 and M4 rifles with mounted scopes, night vision and sometimes thermal imaging devices, all available in abundance in the early months after the hasty withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.
The August 2021 takeover of Afghanistan by the Afghan Taliban also brought relief to the TTP as, unlike with previous governments, the change in regime enabled them to freely roam around the country with their arms and ammunition. However, bound by the Doha Peace Agreement, the Afghan Taliban were keen to deny the TTP any chance of using Afghan soil against a foreign state.
On the other hand, they have been unable to fulfil Pakistan’s demand that they act against the TTP. There are a number of reasons for this. The Afghan Taliban have been fighting the Islamic State-Khurasan (ISK) threat since taking the reins of power in Kabul and there is a strong belief among its leadership that forcing the TTP to lay down its arms and stop its resistance against Pakistan could lead to them joining hands with ISK. Similarly, the Afghan Taliban believe that Islamic Shariah does not permit an Islamic government to force anyone out of their country. Instead, it encourages the government to facilitate peace-making between the arms bearers and their countries of origin. The Afghan Taliban, therefore, opted for a peace process.
Only two months after coming to power, the Afghan Taliban facilitated the first meeting between representatives of the Pakistan government and the TTP in Khost. Within a few weeks, the two sides had agreed on a month-long ceasefire, effective from 9 November to 10 December 2021. Reportedly, Pakistan released several TTP prisoners but soon both sides accused one another of violating the pre-conditions of the peace process, resulting in the failure of a much-anticipated extension in the ceasefire.
Soon, the TTP renewed its terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, claiming 42 in January 2022. Similarly, 22 attacks in February, 39 in March and 54 in April were claimed by the group. The surge in such attacks from an enemy based across the border in a country controlled by arguably one of the world’s most organised and battle-hardened militia left people responsible for ensuring security in Pakistan desperately in need of a practical solution. And when at least 46 people died on 16 April in a camp said to be inhabited by TTP members and their families in Khost, in a rain of bombs and missiles allegedly fired from fighter jets, some experts opined that this was Pakistan’s response to TTP activities in Pakistan. However, neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan has ever explained what happened in Khost that day.
Pakistani security forces have a strong commitment to tacklingthe TTP issue once and for all. Intelligence-based operations in different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have inflicted heavy damage on the TTP and it is evident that the group often try to avoid long battles with security forces for fear of incurring more losses. However, Pakistan faces an uphill task as it faces the challenge of fighting an enemy that has no known base or area under its control.
The writer has covered the Afghan conflict and terrorism in Pakistan, worked as a communication expert with the ICRC in Pakistan, and advised the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue-Geneva on Afghanistan