The origins of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are obscure. But this much is known: that in the formative period of its rise, it was financed heavily by the Al-Qaeda leadership which was on the run from American forces after the demise of the first Taliban regime in December 2001. Al-Qaeda’s leadership located itself in the Pakistani tribal areas after fleeing from Afghanistan. Several documents recovered from Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan had revealed that the international militant group’s strategy was to keep the Pakistani military and intelligence services busy in the local conflict with tribal militant organisations. And the ethnically Arab leadership of Al-Qaeda wanted a free hand to operate in the Pak-Afghan border areas. In order to create a space for themselves in this region, they strategised to use the TTP as a proxy against the Pakistan Army. The Pakistani government was familiar with Al-Qaeda’s strategy at that time. Finances and techniques – including the production of suicide bombers in local training centers – all came from Al-Qaeda operatives. This relationship continued till 2014 when TTP changed its foreign masters or foreign allies. By this time, the Islamic State group (ISIS) started to make its presence felt in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was more radical, had a sectarian character, which suited Pakistani Taliban’s taste, and it was ready to facilitate TTP’s armed struggle against the Pakistani state. Al-Qaeda was running out of steam by then.
One parallel development was taking place in the internal dynamics of Sunni militancy in the region— the Afghan Taliban were developing robust relations with regional powers, which were nervous with the rise of more radical and more ruthless Sunni extremist groups in Afghanistan. The rise of ISIS in northern, eastern and western Afghanistan was giving sleepless nights to Iranian and Russian security planners. Northern and eastern Afghanistan’s geographical proximity to Central Asian states, which the Russian Federation still considers within its security perimetre, compelled Russia’s security apparatus to provide weapons, training and intelligence assistance to the Afghan Taliban, while American troops were still operating in the wartorn country.
Similarly Iran’s clerical regime started to show some level of acceptance of the Afghan Taliban. The Iranian military facilitated the Taliban through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force—which has been known for its operations outside Iranian territory. It didn’t come as a surprise to many that on January 5, 2020, the Taliban issued a statement condemning the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the then-commander of the Quds Force, by “savage American forces,” warning about the consequences.
This question is as much of intention as it is of capacity, which in other words, would mean whether or not the Afghan Taliban have the military and intelligence capacity to prevent attacks against Pakistan from Afghan soil
This bilateral cooperation with segments of the Iranian military and Russian security apparatus put the Afghan Taliban on a collision course with ISIS inside Afghanistan—the same ISIS which was rising in strength in Afghan territory with large-scale defections in Afghan Taliban ranks. So, not surprisingly, there came a time in 2016 when both American forces and Afghan Taliban—with the assistance of Al-Quds forces—were carrying out military operations against ISIS organizational structures in Eastern and Northern Afghanistan.
This was the time when the Russians accused the US military of bringing ISIS fighters into Afghanistan. The Russian government was continuing to demand that the United States answer “the questions regarding unsubstantiated rumors of unmarked helicopters delivering weapons or other aid to terrorist groups, including ISIS, in Northern Afghanistan”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that the U.S. government should address the accusations after meeting the then Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif in Moscow on February 20, 2018. “We are still expecting from our American colleagues an answer to the repeatedly raised questions, questions that arose on the basis of public statements made by the leaders of some Afghan provinces, that unidentified helicopters, most likely helicopters to which NATO in one way or another is related, fly to the areas where the insurgents are based, and no one has been able to explain the reasons for these flights yet,” Lavrov stated. “
One of the clearest indications that ISIS fortunes were on the rise in Afghanistan comes from regional countries neighboring Afghanistan. These countries had been expressing concerns over the increasing activities of ISIS along their borders. Pakistani military officials had expressed the concern that ISIS was gaining “strength in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. These militants from across the border were trying to exploit sectarian fault-lines in Pakistan. “These militants were pushed out of Pakistan in a successful military operation but they have found refuge in areas across the border close to Khyber and Kurram agencies. This concentration and contiguity [of terrorists] near the border has allowed them to make Parachinar (tribal areas in Pakistan with sectarian fault lines) a soft target, where there already exists a sectarian strife,” said a Pakistani security expert.
The fact that ISIS was gaining strength in the northern parts of Afghanistan, close to the Afghan borders with the Central Asian states, is also making Russia nervous. The fact that there was an active Islamic insurgency in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan adds to the fears amongst military planners in the countries north of Afghanistan. This was the time when Iran started to establish contacts with the Afghan Taliban in order to reinforce its military strength against the rising tide of ISIS in Afghanistan. In 2016, according to some reports, the Afghan Taliban also carried out military operations against the organizational presence of ISIS, with the help of Iranian special forces. After coming to power in Kabul, the Afghan Taliban are continuing their military operations against ISIS forces in Afghanistan. The last such operation was conducted on the outskirts of Kabul last month.
The Afghan Taliban are also in competition with ISIS to win over the Pakistani Taliban. As such, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban had jointly carried out operations against NATO forces in the past. There is a difference of opinion within the Afghan Taliban on whether to support the TTP’s ‘jihad’ against the Pakistani state. But there is no dearth of extremists in their ranks who had vehemently supported terrorist attacks against the Pakistani state in the past. The question that is important for Pakistan is not whether the Afghan Taliban succeeds in winning over TTP and compels the latter to dissociate itself from ISIS organisationally and ideologically. Instead, the question is whether the Taliban regime will prevent the Pakistani Taliban leadership—which is still residing in border towns on the Afghan side of the international border—from using Afghan soil to carry out terror attacks inside Pakistan. This question is as much of intention as it is of capacity, which in other words, would mean whether or not the Afghan Taliban have the military and intelligence capacity to prevent attacks against Pakistan from Afghan soil. In order to build such capacity, the conference of regional intelligence chiefs held in Islamabad in August 2021 agreed to provide the Afghan Taliban with intelligence assessments of the situation in real-time.
Still, it will be very unwise on the part of Pakistani security planners to bank on the Afghan Taliban for Pakistan’s security in the face of a re-emergence of the threat emanating from Pakistani Taliban. Terror and militancy are in the very nature of Taliban organisational structure and ideology. Expecting any change in the nature of Pakistani Taliban will prove to be naiveté of highest order.