Pakistani troops patrol along the Afghanistan border at Big Ben post in Khyber district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on August 3, 2021. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

PESHAWAR – A ceasefire between Pakistan’s government and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) announced on October 1 has broken down in a matter of days, ringing the first alarm bells that terror outfits are leveraging the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan to launch cross-border attacks.

In one of the assaults on Pakistani security forces, the TTP targeted a military vehicle in Spinwam, North Waziristan, killing five Frontier Corps soldiers just a day after Prime Minister Imran Khan acknowledged his government was in Afghan Taliban-facilitated talks with TTP representatives in Afghanistan.  

The following day, on October 4, TTP claimed to have killed two Pakistani army soldiers in Ghariom Tehsil in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region in a sniper attack. The attack was a clear violation of the 20-day ceasefire, raising new questions about the TTP’s cohesion, command control and messaging.

TTP, a conglomerate of ethnic Pashtun Islamist militant groups, operates from Pakistan’s northwestern tribal area of North Waziristan and has been fighting the Pakistani state in various forms since 2007.

The group aims to overthrow Pakistan’s government and create an Islamic state ruled by sharia law, similar to the one the Afghan Taliban just established through force of arms in Kabul. It is also believed that TTP aims ultimately to achieve ethnic Pashtun rule in Pakistan, especially in border regions where the ethnic group is in the majority.

The Taliban’s government in Kabul is dominated by Pashtuns, to the exclusion of other ethnic groups like Tajiks and Uzbekis.

Adding to the volatile mix, TTP is also known to receive ideological guidance from al-Qaeda, though TTP leaders have denied having any direct links with the transnational terror group. TTP is also known to have received funds from Islamic State to conduct “outsource” attacks.

A Tehreek-e-Taliban fighter in a file photo. The terror group is ramping up its attacks in Pakistan. Photo: Facebook

It’s clear by now that the Gul Bahadar group (GB) that claimed to represent TTP in recent “peace” talks and agreed to the 20-day ceasefire with Pakistani authorities has no sway over the terror group’s central leadership or on-the-ground fighters.

“Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has never announced a ceasefire. The TTP fighters should continue their attacks wherever they are,” TTP spokesperson Muhammad Khurasani said in a statement on October 2.

TTP was banned soon after its emergence in Pakistan’s tribal areas in 2007 for killing hundreds of Pakistani civilians and security forces. The group was also behind the storming of an army public school in Peshawar in 2014, killing 150 people of whom at least 134 were students.

The outfit has long been riven by divisions, with various factions breaking away to form their own militant groups rooted in particular geographies. But in 2020, many of this militants reunited under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud, a merger that made TTP more deadly and capable of launching attacks.

The strong resurgence of TTP’s terror activities so soon after the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan is raising new concerns about Pakistan’s overall stability, including the security of its nuclear arsenal.

It has long been a nightmare scenario in Western capitals and elsewhere that Pakistan’s nuclear know-how leaks out to non-state Islamic militant groups. The US has designated TTP as a terror organization and over the years during the war in Afghanistan has killed its top leaders in drone strikes.

“There is already an uptick in terror activities in the country following the Afghan developments,” said Mansur Khan Mahsud, executive director of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC), an independent think tank.

“Several terror outfits including TTP, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e- Mohammadi (TNSM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP), Tehreek-e-Jaferia Pakistan (TJP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have already been operating in the country and there is a potential danger that the Afghan ‘jihad’ may spill over to Pakistan.” 

Top US generals have claimed that the rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan has increased the risks to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and overall security. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed such proliferation concerns during the Senate Armed Services Committee meeting last week.

“We estimated an accelerated withdrawal would increase risks of regional instability, the security of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenals,” they said. When pressed on how Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are at risk of falling into the hands of terror outfits, they declined to elaborate, saying they would discuss this and other sensitive issues in a closed session with senators.

Pakistani officials are ringing their own alarm bells. At a weekly briefing in early September, the Pakistan foreign office said that the use of Afghan soil by TTP for terrorist activities inside Pakistan would figure high in bilateral talks with the new Taliban government.

Taliban supporters gather to celebrate the US withdrawal of all its troops out of Afghanistan, in Kandahar on September 1, 2021 following the Taliban’s military takeover of the country. Photo: AFP / Javed Tanveer

Pakistan has since pressed the Taliban to ensure that TTP is not allowed any sanctuary in Afghanistan from which to operate against Pakistan.

Islamabad’s call on the Taliban to uproot through force TTP havens in Afghanistan has so far failed to yield any visible results. The Taliban’s inaction and the coincident surge in TTP terrorist attacks have caused the Pakistan army to order a crackdown on the TTP’s “sleeper cells” in the remote tribal region near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.    

Mansur Khan said the Pakistani government’s attempt to negotiate with the TTP via the Afghan Taliban was doomed to fail because Islamabad will never meet the TTP’s core demands, including independence for border areas.

“They want independent status for the tribal areas where they could enforce strict Islamic laws. Secondly, they would not pledge allegiance to the country’s constitution…The TTP chief Wali Noor Mehsud had resolved [in a CNN interview] to enforce his version of Islam and vowed that his group will continue its war against Pakistan’s security forces,” Mansur added.

“[The talks are] a maiden and strategic gesture from the TTP’s leadership and the call for an independent state in Pakistan’s tribal areas carries an intrinsic threat to the integrity of the country,” he said.