The Taliban in Afghanistan have yet again facilitated a three-month ceasefire deal between the government of Pakistan and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistani Taliban – the largest militant organisation fighting against the Pakistani state. The agreement was struck in Kabul on June 4, 2022 following the first round of talks between the outlawed TTP and a 53-member Jirga (council) consisting of tribal elders from Pakistan’s restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) bordering Afghanistan.[i] They have agreed to extend the ceasefire indefinitely in order to continue negotiations to find an end to nearly two decades of militancy in the country’s tribal border region. Reportedly, the recent announcement came in return of a major concession from Islamabad which agreed to release two important TTP leaders under death row once a settlement between the two sides is reached.[ii]
Intensification of TTP attacks in the recent past has been a matter of grave concern for Pakistan. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August last year was largely viewed as a strategic victory for Pakistan as it managed to establish a friendly government in Kabul after nearly two decades. Over the years, Islamabad had maintained that the presence of the West in Afghanistan has fostered TTP insurgency. With the Taliban back in power, it was hoped that the armed group would rein in TTP fighters, but the contrary happened. The TTP brought about a sharp increase in jihadi violence in Pakistan. In 2021, there were 294 attacks – a 56 percent increase since 2020 and 45 of those in December alone.[iii] Most of the attacks were carried out in the tribal belt in northwestern Pakistan and in the southwestern province of Baluchistan; targeting both security personnel and civilians.
Pakistan’s utter frustration with Afghan Taliban’s lack of intent to act against TTP burst into the open when Pakistan carried out airstrikes in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Khost and Kunar in April this year.[iv] Although Islamabad maintained silence on the incident, media reports suggested the raid targeted the TTP operating across the Durand Line (the 2,670 km Afghanistan-Pakistan land border that Afghanistan has never accepted).[v] The alleged Pakistani air raids sparked protests, with residents in Afghanistan’s Khost and Kandahar provinces taking to the streets as those killed in the attacks were civilians. The Taliban responded by summoning the Pakistani Ambassador and warning Islamabad of “consequences” warning it would not tolerate “invasions” from its neighbours.[vi]
Pakistan claimed its security forces were being targeted from across the border in Afghanistan. Since it was founded in 2007, TTP along with al-Qaeda and some affiliated groups ( who operate along the porous border between the two countries ) have carried out numerous attacks inside Pakistan. After a deadly attack by TTP on an Army-run school in Peshawar in 2014 that killed 141 people[vii], the Pakistani army launched a major offensive against the militant group, forcing many of its members to flee to Afghanistan. After a period of lull in violence, TTP was seen escalating its attacks since the time of US-Taliban Peace Deal in 2020. With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Pakistan Taliban intensified its assaults in Pakistan. Situation worsened in Pakistan when at least two of TTP assaults targeted Chinese workers and the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan; which made Pakistan’s principal ally China extremely anxious.[viii] With the mediation of the Afghan Taliban, a ceasefire between the TTP and the Pakistani military was reached in November 2021 but that did not yield much result.[ix] Pakistan Taliban resumed attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians even while covert negotiations with Islamabad was going on.
Afghan Taliban and TTP are part of the same phenomenon of the radicalism that Pakistanis and Gulf elements have fermented as an ideological project in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, initially as a first step to recapture Afghanistan. TTP fought along with Afghan Taliban against the US and its allies for decades. Senior TTP commanders—including the group’s first supreme leader, Baitullah Mehsud —fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan before the TTP’s founding in 2007. TTP had sent fighters to Afghanistan from Pakistan and staged joint attacks with the Taliban. Afghan Taliban and TTP share a vision of using violence to establish an emirate with their narrow interpretations of Sharia. Linked by the shared Pashtun ethnicity and kinship- it is believed to be the closest to the Afghan Taliban (among all the radical Islamist groups operational in the country). Immediately after taking control of Kabul on August 15 2021, the Taliban set free hundreds of TTP prisoners, including some of its prominent leaders, from Afghan jails.[x] But, Pakistan has looked at the two groups very differently. While the Afghan Taliban are seen as freedom fighters who fought for twenty years and “broke the shackles of slavery” (as Pakistan’s former Prime Minister famously observed[xi]) by defeating the mighty United States; the Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, is a heinous terrorist outfit with an agenda to destabilise Pakistan.
Although the Taliban have repeatedly assured that the Afghan soil will not be used by anyone to destroy the peace of another country; it is aware if it pushed the TTP too hard, TTP could move towards its enemy, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). Moreover, it is also important to remember; the Taliban did not give away their “guest” Osama Bin Laden amidst acute international pressure twenty years ago as that would have entailed violating a sacred principle of the “Pashtunwali” -the Pashtun code of life. It is unlikely that the Taliban will hand over their Pashtun TTP brothers to Pakistan since maintaining the Pashtun unity rhetoric would be far more important for the new rulers of Afghanistan.
It was known that radical elements in the region will be emboldened by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the uptick in terrorism cases in Pakistan only reiterate that. In the negotiations mediated by Afghan Taliban, in addition to the imposition of hard-line Sharia law in Pakistan, the TTP is pressing the Pakistan government to release over 100 of its fighters – currently in Pakistani jails.[xii] Islamabad, on the other hand, wants the TTP disbanded and for its fighters to submit to the country’s constitution and sever its ties with ISKP. Like all negotiations, finding a middle ground might not be easy for the parties involved. The coming months are going to be crucial in determining the future direction of the relationship between Pakistan and Afghan Taliban.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] “Taliban Facilitated 3 Month Ceasefire Announced In Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”. Outlook, June 6, 2022. Available at: https://www.outlookindia.com/international/taliban-facilitated-3-month-ceasefire-announced-in-pakistan-s-khyber-pakhtunkhwa-news-200332 (Accessed on 6.6. 22)
[ii] “TTP ceasefire month after release of 2 of its leaders on death row in Pakistan”. The Times of India, May 20, 2022. Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/91673313.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst (Accessed on 6.6. 22)
[iii] Daud Khattak, “Taliban Takeover In Afghanistan Bolsters Pakistan's Insurgency.”Gandhara.org, Jan 13, 2014. Available at: Taliban Takeover In Afghanistan Bolsters Pakistan's Insurgency (rferl.org) (Accessed on 6.6. 22)
[iv] “At least 47 dead in Afghanistan after Pakistan attacks: Officials.” Al Jazeera, April 17, 2022. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/4/17/afghanistan-death-toll-in-pakistan-strikes-rises-to-47-official(Accessed on 6.6. 22)
[vi] “Taliban summons Pakistan's ambassador over airstrikes in Afghanistan.” The Times of India, April 17, 2022. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/taliban-summons-pakistans-ambassador-over-airstrikes-in-afghanistan/articleshow/90890842.cms(Accessed on 6.6. 22)
[viii] “Why Terrorists Will Target China in Pakistan.” Foreign Policy, Aug 27, 2021. Available at: Terrorists Will Target China in Pakistan (foreignpolicy.com) (Accessed on 7.6. 22)
[ix] “Pakistan ceasefire with terrorist TTP, America’s most wanted mediation”. Hindustan News Hub, Nov 9, 2021. Available at: Trending news: Pakistan ceasefire with terrorist TTP, America's most wanted mediation - Hindustan News Hub(Accessed on 7.6. 22)