by Zia Ur Rehman
April 18, 2019
SOUTH WAZIRISTAN, Pakistan — It took three days of back and forth, arguments and counter-arguments, and some persistent convincing to get the leaders of independent Taliban groups operating in various parts of Pakistan to gather under one platform. Some 11 years ago, on December 14 2007, they met somewhere in South Waziristan, in the tribal belt of Pakistan, and formed the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The TTP’s birth was a major turning point in the rise of organised insurgency and terrorism within Pakistan. It proved to be a lethal armed network.
Some of the deadliest attacks it claimed included the assassination of former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, a suicide attack on a military complex and the cold-blooded murder of over 150 school children in Peshawar. By mid-2008, the TTP virtually controlled all seven tribal agencies of the erstwhile tribal belt in Pakistan and expanded its influence to large swathes of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, especially the Malakand division. The group also operated out of Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city and its financial hub.
But in 2009, the Pakistan army launched a series of military crackdowns to dismantle the network and kill or capture its leaders. In May 2009, Operation Rah-e-Rast launched in the Swat valley; in June 2009, Operation Rah-e-Nijat in South Waziristan; in September 2013, the operation in Karachi; in June 2014, Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan; and then there were the various phases of Operation Khyber in Khyber agency between 2014 to 2017.
But according to security officials and experts, it is the operation in North Waziristan that has shattered the TTP’s network and affected the outfit’s activities from tribal areas to Karachi.
“The operation disrupted the Taliban militants’ control-and-command system by destroying their sanctuaries in North Waziristan, compelling them to flee the area,” Raja Umar Khattab, a Karachi-based counter-terrorism police officer, told TRT World. “The TTP is now mainly headquartered in Afghanistan’s Kunar province and does not have a formal structure in Pakistan anymore.”
Statistics compiled by independent security think-tanks also suggest that successful crackdowns have resulted in a significant decline in terrorist attacks across Pakistan since 2013, showing the TTP has lost its capabilities to carry out terror attacks.
But along with the military’s actions on the ground, the US drone attacks helped significantly in eliminating the TTP central leadership – from Baitullah Mehsud to Maulana Fazullah – hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas or its bordering provinces in Afghanistan. Fazlullah, the TTP chief, was killed in a drone operation on June 13 in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, close to the border. After his killing, Mufti Noor Wali, a leader of the outfit’s faction for Mehsud area, has been elevated to the central chief.
Wali, who also goes by Abu Mansoor Asim, is a religious scholar who was assigned to oversee the party promotion in the media, serving as a judge and managing the affairs of Karachi from Miramshah office in North Waziristan.
However, for the TTP’s newly-appointed chief, overcoming the internal differences within the group and increasing its operational capabilities are the main challenges.
Tribal divisions and disagreements on various issues, such as peace talks with the government, have been the main factors behind discord and splits within the group. The arrival of Daesh in the region, in mid-2014, also caused splintering in the TTP as the former’s ideological appeal, worldwide reputation, and substantial financial resources attracted a number of commanders from the latter.
Although the leadership tussle in the TTP emerged after killing of Baitullah Mehsud in a drone attack in 2009, the infighting continued over the years, plaguing the group not only in Pakistan’s tribal districts but also in Kunar Province of Afghanistan, according to sources familiar with the rift in TTP’s rank and file.
TTP’s disgruntled commanders from Mohmand region formed Jamaat ul Ahrar (JuA) in 2014. Soon after its creation, Ahrar too splintered when Mukarram Khan, a militant leader in Mohmand agency, who created Hizbul Ahrar, after he had a falling out with JuA chief Omar Khalid Khurasani in November 2017. Also, the Asmatullah Muawiya-led TTP Punjab chapter, known as Punjabi Taliban, reportedly surrendered to the government in September 2014, promising to cease his operations in Pakistan and instead take its fight to neighbouring Afghanistan.
After Wali became the TTP’s new chief, the main efforts of the organisation seemed to unite the splinter groups, achieving some success, said Iftikhar Firdous, a Peshawar-based journalist, covering the militancy extensively. An online booklet titled Strategy for the TTP militants, released for its members in September also mentioned the internal differences in the group’s ranks and provided special instructions to overcome them.
“But in recent times, we have seen the attacks that IS [Daesh] has claimed responsibility for, were jointly coordinated with a group that the TTP has distanced itself from,” Firdous told TRT World.
He said although the TTP has been pushed to the peripheries after the military operations, they still carry out attacks intermittently. “The current state of the organisation is scattered, but in recent times most of their attacks seem to be centred in and around Balochistan.”
Since the start of 2019, the TTP has carried out three major attacks in Balochistan’s Pashtun areas, bordering with Afghanistan and tribal areas. On January 1, TTP gunmen wearing suicide vests attacked a residential compound at a paramilitary force’s training base in the area, killing security officials in Loralai district. In the same district, on January 29, the group carried out suicide attacks on a district police office, killing nine people and wounding 21 – most of them were policemen. On March 26, four suspected suicide bombers blew themselves up during a raid conducted by security forces in Loralai.
The operations have not been enough to eliminate the group on Pakistani soil, because the TTP leaders have been masterminding attacks from Afghanistan, and tackling them is turning out to be a key challenge for the Pakistani government.