Last year, many Pakistani government and military officials were pleased with the new state of affairs in Afghanistan, as the Ashraf Ghani-led government collapsed during the U.S. withdrawal, leaving the Taliban to continue capturing vast swaths of the country, ultimately seizing control of Kabul on August 15.
Hardly monolithic institutions, Pakistan’s government and military comprise diverse coteries of competing interests, but some Pakistanis celebrated the Taliban’s return to power with rallies in the street. Then-Prime Minister Imran Khan declared Afghans had broken the “shackles of slavery,” and many Pakistanis relished the perceived blow to perennial archrival India, which had close ties with former Afghan governments. Islamabad had long accused those governments of providing sanctuary to Pakistani militant groups, including Islamist extremists such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Baloch separatists, accused of carrying out cross-border attacks.
From Islamabad to Rawalpindi, the headquarters for Pakistan’s armed forces, hopes had been high that the Taliban’s sudden return to power would solidify bilateral ties with Afghanistan, particularly given Pakistan’s critical role in getting American and Taliban leaders to negotiate an “honorable” exit strategy for Washington.
But one year later, enthusiasm for Taliban rule has largely waned among most Pakistanis who had supported it.
Not only has the Taliban’s victory emboldened the TTP, once one of the world’s most deadly terror groups, to intensify its insurgency against Islamabad, but it has also given it the confidence to expect a more deferential treatment from Islamabad that parallels that of the United States toward the Taliban. Border clashes and unprecedented Pakistani airstrikes inside Afghanistan have worsened relations between Islamabad and the Taliban.
“It became obvious very early on that the Taliban’s ideological, organizational, tribal, and personal ties with the TTP, its fellow ideological traveler, would trump any feeling of gratitude it had towards Pakistan for supporting it — diplomatically, militarily, and institutionally — for the last 20 years,” said Claude Rakisits, a senior strategic analyst at the Australian National University.
“As a result — and counter-intuitively — the security situation along the Afghan-Pakistan border has worsened since the Taliban, Pakistan’s long-term ally for over 25 years, took over in Kabul.”
Emboldened, resurgent TTP
Also collectively known as the Pakistani Taliban, TTP militants have been behind numerous attacks in Pakistan over the past 14 years and have long fought for stricter enforcement of Islamic law in the country, the release of their members from government custody, and a reduced military presence in the country’s former tribal regions.
Until mid-2020, the TTP had been crumbling under Pakistan’s sustained crackdown. U.S. drone strikes had killed successive leaders, and an internal rift steadily pushed factions of the historically Pakistan-based extremists to the neighboring Afghan border provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar.
But the beginning of U.S.-Taliban negotiations encouraged the TTP to reinvent itself as a well-organized terror outfit with improved internal cohesion. Since July 2020, several TTP factions, splintering since 2014, have reconsolidated, encouraging al-Qaida affiliates in Pakistan, among other jihadi outfits, to join up.
Wooing the disgruntled splinter groups, TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud argued that jihad could succeed only if all groups united against Islamabad under one flag, just as the Taliban remained united in its fight against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
A July 5 report by the United Nations Security Council said the TTP now has the largest composition of foreign militants in Afghanistan, with 3,000 to 4,000 fighters, many of whom were freed from Afghan jails shortly after the fall of Kabul. Since Mehsud’s reunification efforts, the group is now “more cohesive, presenting a greater threat in the region,” the UNSC report observed.
Under Mehsud’s leadership, the report adds, TTP has “arguably benefitted” more than any foreign extremist group in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s August 2021 return to power.
Rise in attacks, extortion
Attacks in Pakistan have surged since that time, dramatically altering the regional security landscape. Pakistan saw a 42% increase in terrorist attacks in 2021 compared with the previous year, according to the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), which also observed that the TTP alone was responsible for 87 attacks that killed 158 people, an increase of 84% in attacks compared with 2020.
Baloch insurgents were tied to 63 of the attacks in 2021, claiming 72 fatalities, according to the report.
During the first six months of 2022, law enforcement personnel were the target of 434 attacks, according to an Interior Ministry report presented in the Pakistani Senate on July 29. Among them, 247 militant attacks on law enforcement personnel were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a province that borders Afghanistan.
“The TTP has, in fact, been reborn after Taliban captured Kabul and its attacks have been increased, mainly targeting law enforcement personnel,” said Shah, a senior Peshawar-based police official involved in counterinsurgency operations who agreed to speak on the condition that only a single name be used.
Using telephone numbers with Afghanistan’s international dialing code, TTP have also been extorting Pakistani traders and parliamentarians by phone. Former TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan tweeted July 25 that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s former governor paid $36,350 (7.5 million rupees) in protection money to the militant group.
Taliban reluctant to act
Shortly after Kabul fell, Islamabad urged Taliban rulers to prevent TTP leaders from perpetrating attacks inside Pakistan. Taliban leaders responded by offering to mediate talks, asking Islamabad to address TTP grievances directly.
“Islamabad should realize it could pressure the Taliban regime to take action against the TTP,” said a Pakistani religious scholar involved in ongoing Taliban-brokered peace talks between Islamabad and the TTP.
“Taliban, the TTP and other foreign militant groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, whose leadership are based in Afghanistan, are part of an al-Qaida-led larger jihadi network that helped the Taliban to capture most parts of Afghanistan,” said the scholar, who spoke to VOA’s Urdu Service on the condition of anonymity for fear of personal reprisals.
Frustrated over the Taliban’s reluctance to act against TTP, Pakistan took the unprecedented step in April of launching airstrikes on suspected TTP hideouts in the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Khost, killing 47 people, including women and children. The strikes sparked a severe backlash in Afghanistan, with many accusing Pakistan of violating Afghan sovereignty.
Although both sides agreed to a cease-fire in early June, experts say security remains fragile on the border.
“And this is bad news for a country whose economy is in dire straits, desperately seeking foreign investment and loans to prop it up,” said Rakisits of the Australian National University. “All in all, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban was always a bad policy.”
While terrorist attacks have declined during the cease-fire — the TTP has not claimed responsibility for any attacks since May 9 — some observers told VOA they fear a return to violence is inevitable if the root causes of extremism are not addressed.
In May, both TTP and Pakistani negotiators agreed to maintain an indefinite cease-fire until a deal to resolve the decadeslong conflict is achieved.
Pete Cobus contributed to this report. This story originated in VOA’s Urdu Service.