One month after the Taliban’s seizure of power in Kabul, terror attacks in neighboring Pakistan have hit a four-year high. While many in Islamabad celebrated the Taliban’s re-emergence as a victory for its “strategic depth” policy vis-à-vis India, new losses are accumulating in lost lives and rising instability at home.
While Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate is believed to have played a decisive role in guiding the Taliban’s lightning strike takeover in the wake of the US troop withdrawal, the powerful spy agency apparently miscalculated the Taliban leadership’s control and hold over the affiliated Tehreek-e-Taliban, or TTP, umbrella terror outfit.
The TTP, which operates in areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and has ties with both al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, aims ultimately to overthrow Pakistan’s secular government and install an Islamic Emirate, similar to the one the Afghan Taliban is in the process of putting in place in Kabul.
TTP leaders have said the group aims to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
On October 2, a TTP militant killed four Pakistani soldiers and a policeman in an ambush in the Sinwam area of North Waziristan. TTP took responsibility for the attack, saying in a statement it had ambushed a “raiding party” in the area.
It marked the latest in a surge in TTP attacks in Pakistan, including at least one suicide bombing targeting security forces, since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.
While the Afghan Taliban maintains it will not allow any terror group to use Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks into neighboring countries, it has not yet taken any clear or practical steps to clamp down on TTP, al-Qaeda, TTP or the anti-China East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) groups.
The inaction can be explained by the fact these groups fought arm-in-arm with the Taliban against US and NATO forces, and were instrumental in defeating the Ashraf Ghani regime the Taliban saw as a US-imposed puppet.
In fact, the Haqqani network, which is known to be closely allied with al-Qaeda, was the first to enter Kabul a month ago when the country eventually fell to the Taliban.
A second and more important reason for the Taliban’s inaction against these terror outfits is that they are being used as threatening bargaining chips to establish and manage ties with neighboring states. That includes the TTP, which the Taliban appears to be using to establish leverage in Islamabad.
As a Pakistan official who spoke to Asia Times on the condition of anonymity said:
“[The] Afghan Taliban’s relations with the TTP is a serious dilemma for Pakistan. The fact that the Taliban elite has refused to crack down on the TPP, or even condemn the attacks that the TTP has been carrying out in Pakistan in the past few months, shows that they [the Afghan Taliban] have no real intention of eliminating the TTP, or any other group [al-Qaeda and the ETIM].
“Pakistan is, therefore, increasingly inclined to believe that the Afghan Taliban could try to use the TTP to counterbalance Pakistan’s [traditional] influence on the Taliban,” the Pakistan official said.
Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban vis-à-vis the US and the Ghani regime was always a high-stakes gamble. While Pakistan had hoped that it would be able to cut ties between the Afghan Taliban and TTP, recent developments show that the Afghan Taliban is extremely unlikely to acquiesce to this pressure.
That’s been seen in recent Taliban official statements that have denied widespread reports that many TTP fighters, including top leaders, were released from prison when the Taliban advanced on Kabul. That denial was maintained during a recent meeting between Taliban representatives and the director-general of Pakistan’s ISI.
Instead, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid recently told reporters in Kabul there were many “jailbreaks” in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, which led to the release of hundreds of anti-Pakistan fighters. He said the Afghan Taliban “do not know about them.”
The denials are tactical, if not disingenuous. Some Taliban hardliners who resent the group’s overdependence on Pakistan are known to be seeking ways to diversify their external ties. They see the TTP as an opportunity to manage their relations with Pakistan on a more “equal footing.”
Pakistani diplomatic officials have blamed the US for its decision to start talks with the Taliban directly and without Pakistan’s facilitation for the Taliban’s rising sense of strategic autonomy, which has diminished Islamabad’s ability to influence the Taliban, despite providing sanctuary to its fighters and their families during the US-NATO war.
Indeed, the tables turned in early September when the Taliban offered to facilitate “dialogue” between the TTP and Pakistan government. The Taliban is believed to have played a role in the 20-day “ceasefire” between the TTP and Pakistan Army announced on October 1.
It isn’t clear that all groups under the TTP’s umbrella, including the powerful Hakeemullah Mehsud faction, plan to abide by the ceasefire deal. The TTP and Islamabad have entered such talks several times before since 2007 but to no avail.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced revealed that his government is “negotiating” with some TTP groups based in Afghanistan. He said the Afghan Taliban was mediating between Islamabad and the TTP. The ceasefire ends on October 20.
Pakistan understands well that dialogue and ceasefires will not eliminate the threat. As one TTP leader told international media, if the Afghan Taliban put too much pressure on them, they could join forces with Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) and continue their jihad against both the Taliban and Pakistan.
The Taliban’s accommodationist approach with the TTP is problematic not only for Pakistan but also for the rest of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
The Global Times, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, said in a recent commentary that China will continue to monitor how the Afghan Taliban honors its pledge to control transnational jihadi groups currently operating from within Afghanistan.
The Taliban desperately needs Chinese aid to rebuild the country and more urgently to stave off a potential famine as the economy craters, inflation rises and shortages of essential foodstuffs emerge. So far Beijing has only offered the Taliban $31 million worth of food, winter weather supplies, vaccines, and medicine since its seizure of power.
Russia, meanwhile, continues to designate the Taliban as “terrorists” and symbolically refused to participate in the Taliban’s oath-taking ceremony despite maintaining one of the few still open embassies in Kabul.
Pakistan will need to coordinate closely with China and Russia to manage the terror threat.
Last month, Pakistan’s ISI hosted a meeting of the heads of the intelligence services of China, Russia, Iran and other Central Asian states to discuss the situation and devise a regional intelligence sharing mechanism to monitor common security threats from these groups.
The meeting notably did not include an Afghan Taliban representative, an indication that Pakistan may seek to isolate Kabul if it fails to control the TTP and other terror outfits. But it’s not clear to most observers that the recent Pakistan-TTP “ceasefire” will hold beyond October 20 as long as the Taliban sees the group as a useful pawn in a wider strategic game.