By Manish Rai
Recently, the Pakistani Army boasted they had the Taliban on their side of the border, aka Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), on run and in disarray.
It was claimed that the punishing, year-long offensive had ousted the Taliban insurgents from their most prized tribal sanctuary. The movement’s various factions were riven by violent rivalries, and attacks on Pakistan’s towns and cities had largely ceased because of this.
But now all these claims have been thrown into doubt after four Taliban gunmen mounted a deadly attack on Bacha Khan University in the northwestern town of Charsadda, killing 20 people. The Taliban said they had targeted the university campus because it prepared students to join the government and army.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that Pakistani military campaigns against the TTP have damaged its fighting capabilities and put its leadership on the run. About 70% of the infrastructure in the tribal areas that were once the strongholds of Taliban insurgents has been dismantled. But certainly TTP is not dead and their alliances with other militant groups are still alive and kicking.
Pakistan’s 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. But it’s a matter of fact that Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan is still the largest militant group in Pakistan and its recruitment is done through tribal loyalties and local affiliations.
Certainly, the TPP is no longer the tightly unified force that it once was, when 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. The targets even included 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. But 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.
So because of these military campaigns TTP no longer possesses the capability now of running a parallel government like it did in Swat and South Waziristan once upon a time. But it can still target the civilian soft targets and by doing so prove itself deadly and active. The real operational strengths of Pakistan’s Taliban are its affiliates and support networks, which still exist inside Pakistan. Taliban supporters and sympathizers provide bases 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 sympathizers of TTP. Now, the Pakistani public is starting to question the success of ongoing military operations against the militants. 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 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: the Pakistani state. The government’s various operations have only succeeded in restricting the space for Taliban insurgents to operate, as opposed to denying it completely. There is also the fact that 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, the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani networks are also all weather 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 Pakistan 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. By considering the current situation it’s high time the Pakistan military take some other effective steps in addition to its ground campaigns against TTP. This would maximize the chances of neutralizing the TTP across the nation. Pakistani authorities have to identify and break up local terrorist networks which support the TTP. They must also counter radical ideology through deradicalization programs for youths, and more important, take adequate measures to address lawlessness and extreme poverty in the northwestern mountainous region, which remains a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround. He can be reached at email@example.com)
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.