Prior to the Taliban’s military conquest of Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan had supported the group for years, providing both resources and safe havens. The Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan was initially seen favorably by Pakistan’s government and strategists, with former Prime Minister Imran Khan openly endorsing it. However, after two years of the Taliban’s rule, Pakistani politicians’ assumptions were proved incorrect. The Taliban’s resurgence resulted in unintended consequences, including a stronger Pakistani Taliban and a surge in attacks on Pakistani soil.
Since the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan two years ago, Pakistan has witnessed a 73 percent surge in terrorist attacks, including the devastating January 2023 attack on a Peshawar police mosque that caused over 300 casualties. Misjudgments by Pakistani politicians before Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban contributed to this situation.
The TTP’s Growing Activities in Pakistan Since August 2021
The surge in insecurity within Pakistan can largely be attributed to the expansion of the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Since the Afghan Taliban assumed control in Afghanistan in August 2021, there has been a notable growth in the TTP’s activities within Pakistan.
Established in 2007 under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud, the TTP consists primarily of Pashtun members following the Deobandi school of thought. Their aim is to establish an Islamic system, based on their interpretation of Islam. In addition to enforcing strict Shariah (Islamic law), their objectives encompass securing members’ release and reducing the Pakistani military presence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Starting in 2014, Pakistan’s efforts led to the dismantling of TTP strongholds, causing some members to flee to Afghanistan. Pakistan accused the previous Afghanistan administration of providing shelter to the group, but the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan did not suppress the TTP – on the contrary, the Afghan Taliban’s resurgence bolstered the TTP’s strength.
This support from the Afghan Taliban, coupled with newfound strength due to mergers, has empowered the Pakistani Taliban to escalate attacks and expand their influence within Pakistan’s borders. Despite assurances from the Afghan Taliban that Afghanistan’s territory won’t serve as safe havens for attacks on other countries, including Pakistan, the heightened activities of the Pakistani Taliban have raised suspicions regarding the extent of control and enforcement by the new Afghan Taliban leadership. Consequently, Pakistani authorities grapple with the intricate challenge of containing and countering the growing threat posed by the TTP while navigating evolving dynamics following the rise of the Afghan Taliban.
Furthermore, the TTP has modernized its arsenal, incorporating advanced weaponry such as state-of-the-art rifles equipped with thermal scopes, significantly enhancing its combat capabilities. The acquisition of these weapons followed the collapse of the previous Afghan administration.
A final notable aspect of the TTP’s resurgence is the rapid escalation of its attacks, spanning from tribal regions to major cities and strategically targeting security forces. As a report from the Combating Terrorism Center noted, “TTP-claimed attacks more than tripled between 2020 and 2022, with the monthly attack average rising from 14.5 in 2020 to 23.5 in 2021 and 45.8 in 2022.”
Terrorist violence has undergone a significant surge in Pakistan since the Taliban assumed control of Kabul. According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, terrorist attacks within Pakistan surged by a staggering 73 percent during the 21 months following the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, as compared to the corresponding period prior to their rise. The number of fatalities from attacks in Pakistan between August 2021 and April 2023 also witnessed a substantial increase of 138 percent. Notably, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have experienced the largest rises in terrorist violence since August 2021, with attacks during these 21 months surging by 92 percent and 81 percent, respectively.
Over the past two years, a series of lethal attacks have targeted Pakistani armed forces, with the most devastating being the assault on a prominent police mosque in Peshawar in January 2023, resulting in over 300 casualties. The Pakistani Taliban took responsibility for this attack. Furthermore, on July 30, 2023, a blast during a political gathering in Pakistan’s Bajaur region led to 63 fatalities and numerous injuries, with the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan claiming responsibility.
In a recent assault on a Pakistani army center in Balochistan province, nine members of Pakistan’s security forces were killed. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed last week that the attackers involved in this incident hailed from Kandahar, Afghanistan, urging the Taliban-led Afghan government to recover its dead bodies from the Afghan Embassy under Islamabad’s jurisdiction.
Are the Afghan Taliban Willing to Curb the TTP?
A variety of factors determine the Afghan Taliban’s approach to the Pakistani Taliban. The connection between these two groups is complicated, owing to a combination of strategic, historical, and practical concerns. While the Afghan Taliban do not actively coerce the Pakistani Taliban, their posture and behavior toward the TTP are influenced by multiple intertwined factors.
The Afghan Taliban and TTP have deep historical and ideological ties. One important aspect of their interconnectivity stems from the fact that many TTP members initially aided the Afghan Taliban in their fight against NATO forces after 2001. Furthermore, the two group’s shared Pashtun ancestry and tribal affiliations on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border add to the complexities of their relationship.
Although the leadership of the Afghan Taliban openly advises their members against engaging in conflicts against the Pakistani government, ordinary members perceive supporting the TTP as a religious obligation. This perspective is deeply rooted in ideology and forged through tribal ties cultivated over years of insurgency. Predictably, then, reports have emerged of Afghan militants actively aiding the TTP in its struggle against Pakistani security forces.
It is critical to recognize that the Afghan Taliban’s primary goal is to consolidate power within Afghanistan. As a result, becoming involved in a confrontation with the TTP may divert their attention and consume critical resources.
Strategically, the Afghan Taliban may regard the TTP as a vital asset that allows them to preserve some power over Pakistan. This measured strategy indicates their cautious avoidance of total alienation of the TTP, as they may see future utility or leverage in negotiations or interactions with Pakistan.
Just like any widespread and decentralized entity, the Afghan Taliban might experience internal divisions and differing perspectives on how to effectively handle the TTP. Moreover, it’s crucial not to overlook the Afghan Taliban’s sensitivity toward their public image and how their actions are perceived by the Afghan population. Afghans have criticized the group for allegedly heeding Pakistan’s security establishment for an extended period. Now that the Taliban holds power, complying with Pakistan’s directives isn’t straightforward. Hence, taking assertive measures against the TTP while maintaining engagement with Pakistan could potentially impact the Afghan Taliban’s pursuit of internal acknowledgment and support within the Afghan populace.
The intensity of the TTP’s attacks in Pakistan is not new; the group orchestrated numerous attacks against Pakistani military forces between 2010 and 2013. However, the current difference lies in Pakistan’s unfavorable circumstances. The prime minister of Pakistan and the military have repeatedly threatened that if terrorist attacks against Pakistan are carried out from Afghanistan’s territory, they will carry out military operations on Afghan soil to root out terrorist bases.
However, with the current economic and political problems,that is unrealistic. Economically, Pakistan is facing severe poverty, a serious food crisis, and a devaluation of the Pakistani rupee. In the last two years, the price of raw materials in Pakistan has increased sharply and its foreign exchange reserves have decreased greatly. Pakistan is facing the problem of lack of foreign currency for foreign payments for food and fuel.
In addition, Pakistan is currently facing political instability. The government witnessed political unrest recently. In May, supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan moved to the streets after Khan’s arrest; in some cities, they set fire to government buildings. These riots continued until Khan was released from prison after a few days. A number of protesters even set fire to the houses of the senior army commanders of that country. This form and intensity of riots has never been seen in Pakistan and is a serious challenge to the political stability of this country.
Now, three months later, Imran Khan has been sent to prison again on charges of corruption, and his supporters are possibly preparing for massive demonstrations and protests. Meanwhile, a caretaker government has been installed as Pakistan prepares for elections, meaning the political instability is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Finally, the government of Pakistan has not thought of finding another alternative in the face of the mistrust with the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani government has invested in the Afghan Taliban for years and has provided them with safe havens for two decades. For this reason, it is difficult for the Pakistani government to find a replacement if the Afghan Taliban disobeys its orders.
At the end, considering the trends of the past two years, the Pakistani government is unlikely to swiftly overcome the threat posed by the TTP. Hence, the decision to support the Afghan Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan may come with substantial costs for Pakistan.