Recently, the Pakistani Army boasted they had the Pakistan Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), on the run and in disarray.
It was claimed that the yearlong offensive had ousted the Taliban insurgents from their most prized tribal sanctuary. The movement’s various factions were riddled with violent rivalries, and attacks on Pakistani towns and cities had largely ceased because of this. But now all these claims are doubted after four Taliban gunmen mounted a deadly attack on Baccha Khan University in the northwestern town of Charsadda, killing 20 people.
The Taliban argued that they had targeted the university campus because it prepared students to join the government and army. No doubt military campaigns against TTP have deteriorated its fighting capabilities as its leadership is on the run. About 70 percent of the infrastructure in the tribal areas, which were once the strongholds of Taliban insurgents, has been dismantled.
But TTP is not dead and their alliances with other militant groups are still alive and kicking. The Pakistani military leadership has claimed periodically that the TTP rump is now hiding in Afghanistan’s eastern and northeastern regions and have been calling for an Afghan campaign against them.
It’s a matter of fact that TTP is still the largest militant group in Pakistan and its recruitment is done with the help of tribal loyalties and local affiliations.
Certainly, the Pakistani Taliban is no longer the tightly unified force that it once was. The movement was commanded from the heartland of Waziristan in the tribal belt by swaggering, publicity-hungry commanders who could call on a seemingly limitless stream of suicide bombers to hit targets across Pakistan, including even the army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi.
The current nominal leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, was a polarizing figure within the militant movement even from the start. Since the military began clearing his sub-commanders and allies out of the North Waziristan tribal area, he appears to have even less authority over the Taliban’s factional leaders, many of them headstrong characters who alternate between cooperation and violent feuding. Due to these military campaigns, TTP does not possess the capability of running a parallel government like it once did in Swat and South Waziristan. But it can still target the civilians (“soft targets”) to prove itself deadly and active.
The real operational strengths of the Pakistan Taliban are its affiliates and support networks, which still exist inside Pakistan. Taliban supporters and sympathizers provide base and facilitate the movements of fighters without which no attack can be planned and executed.
Till now Pakistani authorities have failed to take action against sympathisers of TTP. As a result, the Pakistani public is starting to question the success of the ongoing military operation. Moreover, it can be argued that in some senses, the government’s military operations have strengthened the region’s fractious jihadist organizations by forcing them to put aside their differences and work together.
For example, the government’s commencement of the Zarb-e-Azb operation in the North Waziristan district, and supplementary operations in other districts of tribal areas, served to soften the TTP’s differences over the leadership and to bind these groups together against a common enemy (a Pakistani state).
The government’s various operations have only been able to restrict the space for Taliban insurgents to operate in rather than deny it completely. Additionally, no senior militant leaders have yet been killed or arrested, making it is easier for these groups to bounce back and reorganize themselves once government pressure is removed.
Moreover, Afghan Taliban and Haqqani networks are also all friends of TTP. The Pakistan army’s protection of the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban as ‘strategic assets’ has helped the TTP to retain its sanctuary and its attack capabilities. The areas dominated by the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban have provided TTP with strategic depth.
Whenever the Pakistani military stepped up its offensive in the tribal areas, the TTP found it convenient to move into the Afghan Taliban-controlled areas. There is substantial evidence that the Haqqani Network has also helped the TTP to survive the military onslaught which, in any case, has been selective and hence ineffective.
What Pakistan today faces in the TTP is a hybrid group, a mixture of virulent insurgency and terrorism. Considering the current situation, it’s high time that the Pakistan military take some other effective steps as well in addition to its ground campaigns against TTP so that the aim of neutralizing TTP throughout the nation can be achieved.
Pakistani authorities have to identify and break up local terrorist networks which supports TTP, counter radical ideology through deradicalization programs for youths, and most importantly, take adequate measures to address lawlessness and extreme poverty in the northwestern mountainous region, a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists.