An Islamic militant in Pakistan in a file photo. Image: Agencies

PESHAWAR – Pakistan could face fresh waves of militancy if the inter-Afghan peace talks now underway in Doha fail to reach a conclusive agreement on the fate of thousands of foreign militants operating in Afghanistan with the backing of the Taliban.

Signs of reinvigorated militancy are discernable as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an extremist Deobandi-Wahabi armed outfit, regains a strategic foothold in Pakistan’s northwest tribal belt, its erstwhile abode.      

Research reports indicate that at least 112 people have been killed in the region between January and September this year, with fatalities caused by improvised explosive devices, ambuscades and targeted killings for suspected collaboration with Pakistani security agencies.

Over the same period, 52 soldiers have been killed by believed TTP militants, the latest being a young Pakistan army lieutenant earlier this week. At least 13 militants were killed in a clash this month with security agencies in the long-volatile tribal region.  

Mansur Khan Mahsud, executive director of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC), an independent think tank, told Asia Times, “there has been an increase of over 50 % in the number of casualties during September over the data compiled during August.”

The FRC collects statistics and compiles in-depth security reports on the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). FATA has recently been merged with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a consolidation that revoked its previous special status as a separate federal entity.

The region could soon tilt back towards instability if TTP militants now in Afghanistan rush back to Pakistan, analysts warn.

A UN report released last month disclosed that between 6,000 to 6,500 TTP militants took refuge in Afghanistan following Pakistan Army operations against the group in 2014. It’s unclear how many are still affiliated with TTP in Afghanistan, though it’s believed to be in the thousands.

“One of the reasons for the repositioning and regrouping of the TTP is the Afghan peace process. Once the peace talks bring political stability in the region, the TTP would lose a haven in Afghanistan and would eventually go back to their sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan,” Mahsud said.

He said his outfit’s research shows that many TTP militants have already started to cross the border to return home.

Moreover, various splinter groups that earlier defected due to internal differences are now reportedly rejoining TTP.

The Mehsud group, which was the most influential and powerful faction in the TTP, fell out with the group’s leadership over its dubious activities like kidnapping for ransom, extortion, damage to public facilities and bombings.

In May 2014, it formed a breakaway unit known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban South Waziristan, led by Khalid Mehsud. Some reports suggest that the Mehsud group rejoined TTP in 2017, following the expulsion of rogue elements believed to be behind the activities.

Another group of TTP hardliners formed a separate entity in 2014 known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, led by Mohmand Agency commander Omar Khalid Khorosani. They had disobeyed TTP emir Mullah Fazlullah’s order to fight the Pakistani Army in the tribal areas to scuttle their offensive against the militants.

Another TTP stalwart, Asmatullah Muawiya, the chief of the Punjabi Taliban, announced in 2014 that his group had quit its earlier terror activities against the Pakistani state.

TTP fighters in a file photo at an undisclosed location. Image: Agencies

Meanwhile, TTP spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid, along with the group commanders of Orakzai, Kurram, Khyber, Peshawar and Hangu districts, left TTP to join Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014.

Now, analysts say, those splinter groups are coming back together under TTP’s umbrella.

“The TTP has fortified its base by acquiring precise operational skill and trained manpower by reunifying the defecting groups including Jamaat-Ul-Ahrar, Hizbul Ahrar, Al-Qaeda, Punjabi Taliban of Farooqi and Muawiya groups, Islamic State and Balochistan-based networks,” Mahsud said.

He said that other small groups that earlier departed the main TTP group have also recently come back to the TTP’s fold.        

Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun tribal belt has been a hotbed for hardcore terror organizations ever since the clash between anti-communist Islamic guerrillas and the Afghan communist government led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1989.

Over the years, global terror networks including Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Jamat-e-Ahrar, Hizbul Ahrar, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Jundallah, the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Jangvi have all sheltered in the area, particularly after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks drove the US to wage war on Afghanistan.

In 2014, the Pakistani army launched a joint military offensive against the militants that destroyed many of their sanctuaries in the inaccessible mountainous areas of North Waziristan, near the Pakistan-Afghan border.    

The TTP, one of Pakistan’s deadliest terror outfits, came into being in December 2007 with Baitullah Mehsud as its founding emir. Mehsud would go on to command as many as 20,000 TTP fighters at the group’s apex.

TTP stands accused of killing hundreds of civilians, soldiers, police and intelligence officials, with the Pakistan army at one point claiming that the militant group was involved in nearly every terror attack launched in Pakistan.

The UN once claimed its involvement in 80% of suicide bombings in Afghanistan. Mehsud has also been blamed for the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2008.

TTP former leader Hakimullah Mehsud (L) in a file photo. Image: Agencies

All three previous TTP chiefs, including Mehsud in 2009, have been killed in US drone attacks. His successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, was assassinated by a US drone strike in November 2013.

The group’s third successor, Maulana Fazlullah, the mastermind of a deadly attack on a Pakistani army-run school in Peshawar that killed 150 and wounded 114, was snuffed out by a US drone in 2018.

Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud is TTP’s current chief. His precise whereabouts are unknown but no doubt currently being sought by Pakistani authorities as tensions spike in TTP’s tribal homelands.