After the Taliban’s Takeover: Pakistan’s TTP problem

With a burgeoning alliance between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP, Pakistan faces a major insurgency challenge in 2022.

In 2021, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency escalated its challenge against Pakistan. Operating from bases in Afghanistan, and with a growing presence inside Pakistan, the group mounted an increasing number of attacks against Pakistani security forces — as well as against some critical Chinese interests in Pakistan. The insurgency also showed renewed political strength by bringing in splintered factions and improving internal cohesion. Additionally, al-Qaeda signaled its continued alliance with the TTP. On Tuesday, after an attack by the TTP on the police in Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, Pakistan’s Interior Minister warned that more attacks by the group are likely.

Yet the year’s most significant development was the TTP’s demonstrated alliance with — and patronage by — the Afghan Taliban. This was a striking outcome, as the Pakistani government had long argued the TTP was largely a byproduct of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan combined with external support from the former Afghan government in cahoots with India. Therefore, Pakistani officials often implied, the U.S. exit from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban would limit the TTP’s threat against Pakistan.

On the contrary, the TTP seems to have been energized with the Taliban’s takeover and looks stronger than before. The depth of the TTP-Afghan Taliban relationship became evident after the Taliban’s August takeover. Almost immediately, Taliban leadership released senior TTP leaders and a large number of fighters imprisoned by the former Afghan government. The Taliban regime also appears to have provided the TTP’s top leadership with de-facto political asylum and freedom of movement within Afghanistan — from which the group is directing its campaign of violence in Pakistan.

Ever since the Taliban’s takeover, the TTP has emphasized that the Afghan Taliban is not only a model insurgency, but also the mothership of their movement. TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud has publicly reiterated his pledge of allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Maulvi Hibatullah Akhundzada and claimed the TTP to be a branch of the Taliban in Pakistan. For their part, the Taliban are evasive on the current status and future of the TTP in Afghanistan and remain non-committal on a crackdown despite the group’s violence against Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Initial Approach: (Failed) Reconciliation with the TTP

The Pakistani government appears to have sought the intercession of long-standing ally Siraj Haqqani, a top Taliban leader, for talks with the TTP — especially as the TTP’s violence mounted after the Taliban took power. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly took the position that a political settlement was the only way to end Pakistan’s war with the TTP.

Initial negotiations between the TTP and Pakistan, which took place in Afghanistan, made some headway. A short cease-fire was announced in early November, with reports that Pakistan had committed to the release of over 100 TTP prisoners, including some high-profile leaders, that were in detention in Pakistan. But that cease-fire was suspended by the TTP in early December, as they alleged the Pakistani government didn’t keep its commitments.

The Pakistani government offered conflicting accounts regarding the logic of the negotiations and the cease-fire. At one stage, Pakistani President Arif Alvi and Prime Minister Imran Khan observed that Pakistan was open to amnesty for the TTP if it laid down arms and agreed to adhere to Pakistan’s constitution. However, other Pakistani government ministers downplayed the idea that amnesty was on the table. Meanwhile, Pakistani military spokesman recently stated that the cease-fire was agreed on at the request of the Afghan Taliban government.

The TTP’s calculus on the cease-fire also remains unclear. One possibility is that it was using the cease-fire to gain the release of imprisoned senior leaders and improve its battlefield position by sneaking fighters into Pakistan from across the border in Afghanistan. Another is that the TTP was complying with an ask from the Afghan Taliban leadership to help it consolidate power in Afghanistan. There are indications that some TTP leaders were unhappy with the cease-fire — others took the position that despite Pakistan’s unwillingness to release prisoners, Siraj Haqqani was pressuring them on Pakistan’s behest.

Yet it is unknown how far Haqqani actually pushed the TTP, as there is deep support within the Afghan Taliban for the TTP and its “jihad” against Pakistan. There is also a possibility that TTP chief Mehsud worried a longer cease-fire would bring stress on the group’s cohesion and trigger defections, especially to the more violent IS-K which regularly engages in outbidding violence.

The Future of Pakistan’s Support for the Afghan Taliban

Will Pakistan revisit its support for the Taliban government due to the sanctuary the Afghan Taliban is providing to the TTP? In the near term, that is unlikely. The renewed threat of the TTP backed by the Afghan Taliban appears secondary in the hierarchy of Pakistan’s security policy priorities.

Pakistan’s overarching goal remains that a political power it perceives as “pro-Pakistan” rules in Afghanistan. In the Pakistani calculus, which is informed by strong ideological priors, such an entity would marginalize Indian political influence on Pakistan’s western periphery on one hand and, on the other, keep a lid on irredentist strands of Pashtun nationalism. Despite mounting costs of supporting the Taliban, Pakistani assessment remains that such an entity — for the foreseeable future — is the Afghan Taliban. It is plausible that Pakistan also fears total state collapse in Afghanistan due to the humanitarian disaster unfolding there, as well as the possible spillover into Pakistan. But it’s difficult to disentangle that concern from the country’s longstanding focus of obtaining a political order in Afghanistan on its terms.

Still, there is growing friction in the Pakistan-Taliban relationship since the Taliban’s takeover — especially over the construction of a border fence by Pakistan. Should the TTP’s violence continue to escalate, particularly in Pakistan’s urban areas, Pakistani military and intelligence leadership will face some domestic political pressure to recalibrate. And if the Afghan Taliban step-up their opposition to Pakistan’s fencing of the border, Pakistan-Taliban relations can deteriorate. In that scenario, Pakistan may slow down its diplomatic campaign to rehabilitate the Taliban. It may also manipulate the Taliban’s internal politics to influence the group’s positions on Pakistan-specific issues.

What’s Next for Pakistan in 2022

In 2022, the TTP’s violence will remain a major challenge for Pakistan. The Pakistani government will pursue a strategy of containment by trying to revive dialogue with the TTP, most likely with the help of Haqqani and some tribal leaders.

However, despite previous intonations, Pakistan is unlikely to pursue a major political settlement that grants a broad amnesty to the TTP. Instead, the focus of the talks will be a long-term, sustainable cease-fire in exchange for some piecemeal concessions. Pakistan may be open to the release of some TTP prisoners — as well as permitting select factions of the group to keep their weapons, regular side-payments and cross-border movement. There are such arrangements already in effect between Pakistan and a number of armed groups, albeit at a smaller scale, in the country’s former tribal areas.

Pakistan may also attempt to pressure the TTP with cross-border military action, especially if talks don’t make any headway. This may involve covert assassination attempts as well as the use of aerial surveillance and unmanned targeting capabilities, which Pakistan has been investing in over the last few years. Pakistan reportedly has a growing fleet of Chinese armed drones. Last year, there were reports of Pakistani drone strikes and sustained aerial surveillance in the Waziristan region. And in December, after the TTP suspended the cease-fire, Pakistan may have targeted senior TTP leader Maulvi Faqir Muhammed in a drone strike in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, but the missile failed to explode.

Pakistan is likely to attempt to divide the TTP. It might draw on monetary and political inducements, perhaps mixed with targeted violence against key nodes within the group, to wean away malleable from hardline insurgent leaders. There is precedent for this: From 2012 to 2015, Pakistan was able to induce defections of major groups in the TTP, such as a faction of Punjabi Taliban led by former Jaish-e-Muhammed leader Asmatullah Muawiya.

Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy

The growing threat of the TTP has implications for U.S. counterterrorism policy priorities. For one, a resurgent TTP creates more space and options for al-Qaeda, which also remains allied to the Afghan Taliban. In April 2021, al-Qaeda publicly reposed confidence in the TTP. This is a serious threat nexus — and Pakistan’s attempt at deal-making with the TTP has the potential to add to it. In the past, even short-term deals have backfired by strengthening both the TTP and al-Qaeda.

Some analysts point to the TTP’s downplaying of transnational jihad goals in its declared aims recently. But that doesn’t mean it has broken from al-Qaeda; instead TTP maybe minimizing its interest in global jihad to protect itself from U.S. targeting. The TTP is sensitive to the threat of U.S. drone strikes, as similar strikes whittled the group’s political echelon from 2008 to 2017. Separately, the TTP’s cohesion is important to watch. Major defections in the group could be a source of strength for IS-K.

Notwithstanding the uncomfortable reality that Pakistan’s support for the Taliban contributed to the U.S. failure in Afghanistan, the U.S. government retains substantial needs for its over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy in the region — for which it has approached Pakistan. To that end, the growing challenge of the TTP to Pakistan creates a narrow convergence between U.S. and Pakistani goals. If the threat keeps growing, it will increase Pakistan’s interest in cooperation.

But for now, there are limits. Pakistan is not willing to get tougher with the Taliban government on counterterrorism, including on issues that affect its own security. Pakistan’s reliance on Siraj Haqqani — who remains a designated terrorist by the U.S. government and close to al-Qaeda — is also a major hurdle to meaningful cooperation. Until that changes, Pakistan is likely to only offer assistance to the U.S. government on a narrow set of targets, with restrictive and conditional terms of cooperation. Policymakers should be clear-eyed on these limits.

Finally, the Afghan Taliban’s backing of the TTP in Afghanistan is informative regarding the trajectory of the Afghan Taliban’s counterterrorism commitments to the United States and other countries in the region. If the Taliban are not restraining a terrorist group attacking its most important state benefactor of the last two decades, the Taliban’s guarantees to other states — which have more limited leverage on the Taliban — are not reliable.