Since assuming power in Kabul in August 2021, the Afghan Taliban have faced an arch-rival in the form of IS-Khorasan (ISKP). Besides facing almost regular attacks on their leaders and commanders inside Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban have to deal with a situation where their more radicalised members and commanders are shifting loyalties to join the IS-Khorasan. International security experts have long predicted that the Taliban’s willingness to interact with foreigners will anger their radicalised members. IS-Khorasan ranks started swelling even before the Afghan Taliban captured Kabul. And these ranks swelled as a result of desertions in the ranks of the Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
After coming to power, the Afghan Taliban assigned to themselves the task of weaning the TTP away from any kind of alliance with ISIS-Khorasan. Not only the TTP but a variety of Pakistani terror and militant groups have cooperated with ISIS-Khorasan in the past in recruitment, training, propaganda and terror attacks. Afghan Taliban leaders tried to convince Pakistani government representatives about their ‘soft’ treatment of the TTP – who have been hiding in Afghan border towns and cities – as a necessity in their efforts to wean the TTP from IS-Khorasan. They told Pakistani officials that if they pushed the TTP too hard on the issue of not using Afghan soil in their attacks into Pakistani territory, it would make the TTP join hands with IS-Khorasan. Pakistani officials fell into the trap and started negotiations with the TTP representatives in Kabul under an arrangement in which Afghan Interior Ministry officials used to act as mediators between the TTP and a Pakistani military commander (the now retired Lt. General Faiz Hameed). A delegation of 50 Pakistani tribal elders were facilitated to visit Kabul to hold direct talks with the TTP when indirect talks with the military commander failed to make headway. The TTP was demanding withdrawal of army troops from the erstwhile tribal areas, and the reversal of tribal areas merger into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Both were totally unacceptable to the federal government.
A Pakistani military commander arriving in Kabul on a special plane to hold talks with ragtag militia leaders had the expected impact on the security situation inside Pakistani territory. The TTP which was previously operating in seven tribal districts, now extended its operation to Balochistan, where they recently carried out a suicide attack. According to a report, the TTP developed linkages with Baloch separatists and is cooperating with them in implementing their threat to “carry out terror strikes across Pakistan.”
The growing nexus between the TTP and Baloch separatists has also come to light in recent months, adding a dangerous dimension to the threat of militant groups disturbing the civic life in the country. The TTP, on the other hand, has a long history of interacting with transnational terror groups like Al-Qaeda. In fact, the TTP in its formative period was heavily financed by Al-Qaeda. Not surprisingly, IS-Khorasan outsourced its propaganda efforts to the TTP in 2016 when the Islamic State group’s mother organisation in Syria decided to shift its focus towards Afghanistan. The original organisational structure of IS-Khorasan in its formative period was established with the help of TTP deserters. When in 2015, thousands of TTP deserters joined IS-Khorasan, the organisational structure of the latter came into existence. Both international and local security experts are of the opinion that all these terror and militant organisations including the TTP, Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda and IS-KP draw from the same pool of recruits and militants. This pool of recruits has existed in this region since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where several foreign and local intelligence agencies’ efforts helped create a pool of so-called ‘mujahideen’ to fight against Russian forces in Afghanistan. This pool has grown in size and strength over the years.
There are growing indications that the Pakistan government is about to give a go ahead to its military for a large-scale military operation against the TTP. The possibility of a military operation was discussed in the latest meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) and corps commanders’ meetings, where participants were briefed about the revived threat from the TTP. Violence has increased in Pakistani cities and tribal areas in recent weeks following the TTP decision to end the ceasefire with the government forces. Suicide attacks in Islamabad and attacks on security forces in tribal areas were followed by high-level civil and military meetings in Islamabad, where terror threats were discussed. Pakistan’s military has been engaged in lowkey counter-insurgency operations in tribal areas where military units are carrying out intelligence-based operations against the TTP and its affiliates.
Military experts say that even if the Pakistan government decides to launch a full-scale operation against the TTP, the nature of military action itself will not change much. Moreover, such experts say that there is no chance that the TTP could take control of any territory inside Pakistan like they used to control in the period between 2007 and 2014. Territory on the Pak-Afghan border areas is firmly under the control of the Pakistan army, and the TTP in its present shape has no capacity to snatch that control from them. All that the Pakistan military has to do is go after TTP remnants in a smart manner with intelligence assets in the lead. There is already large-scale military deployment in the tribal areas and no fresh deployment will be required.
Before a country’s civil and military leaders agree on a large-scale military operation, we should ponder upon two apprehensions which would shape the future of our security environment and political situation.
Firstly, Pakistan is passing through the worst economic and financial crisis of its history and the corresponding financial crunch could become an obstacle in the way of the government giving a go-ahead for a military operation. And even if it does give such a go-ahead, there is no certainty that the operation will be a short one. A military operation extended over a long period of time could be financially devastating for Pakistan’s economy and financial situation. Foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto discussed the possibility of a full-scale operation with US officials in Washington two weeks back. They seem to have offered some kind of assistance. As to what will be the nature of this assistance is not clear. So, till today, we can’t be sure that we will not find ourselves in some kind of financial and security quagmire in case of a prolonged military operation. Secondly, the Pakistani government will have to watch out for the Afghan Taliban reaction to any possible military operation, as the TTP is formally allied with the Afghan Taliban. TTP leaders are still hiding in border towns and cities of Afghanistan from where they launch terror attacks against Pakistani security forces. The terrorist group of yesteryear – and by this I mean the Afghan Taliban – are now in control of the Afghan state machinery. Dealing with the TTP might eventually seem like the tip of an iceberg if seen in the light of the fact that Afghanistan now is in the process of becoming a hub of international terror and militancy. So, eventually maintaining and keeping the international border stable in the face of this composite terror threat might seem more important tomorrow than breaking the back of TTP. Anyone planning a military operation must keep in mind that Pakistan is on the verge of default.
Those responsible for bringing us to the edge of default must be hanged first.