Have The Taliban Begun To Reemerge In Pakistan?
The Pakistani Taliban seem poised to exploit the security vacuum rendered by the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan
The 21 April suicide bombing at the Serena hotel in Quetta was perhaps the most spectacular terror attack that took place in Pakistan this year. Instead of Baloch separatist militants, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – also called the Pakistani Taliban – claimed responsibility for it. In their statement, the TTP said that it targeted a meeting of senior security personnel at the hotel, and not the Chinese ambassador who was in Quetta and due to visit the hotel shortly before the bombing took place. Mainstream commentators who posited the notion that this was a one-time security lapse, either because the FC was ceding security responsibilities to the Balochistan police or because the TTP got lucky, now have to pause and reflect. The TTP claimed responsibility for three attacks within a period of 36 hours between 4 and 6 May 2021, while it also managed to inflict casualties on Pakistan security forces conducting an intelligence-based operation against its operatives.
Late on 4 May, TTP claimed responsibility for attacking a Pakistan Army post in the Kharki area of Lower Dir district, adjacent to the Afghan province of Kunar. The TTP claimed injuring several Pakistani soldiers while confirming at least one Taliban casualty. On 5 May, a Pakistan Army vehicle patrolling in Mohmand tehsil of Bajaur tribal district was attacked when a roadside bomb detonated, resulting in the martyrdom of 2 soldiers and serious injuries to another two. Bajaur is also right next door to Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Also on 5 May, Pakistani troops conducted an intelligence-based operation (IBO) in the Dosali area of North Waziristan tribal district, which resulted in 2 terrorists killed while 2 soldiers as well as a captain embraced martyrdom. And on 6 May, TTP claimed responsibility for a cross-border firing incident that targeted paramilitary FC troops engaged in fencing the Pak-Afghan border: ISPR confirmed that 4 soldiers were martyred while 6 others were injured and transferred to Quetta CMH (combined military hospital). North Waziristan tribal district is proximate to the Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika, while Zhob district straddles the Afghan border along Paktika province.
It must be noted that while ISPR reported both the North Waziristan IBO and the Zhob cross-border firing incident, only a press release of the latter attack is displayed on the ISPR website’s press releases section. Since the latest tweet on the official ISPR Twitter account is dated 4 May – two condolence messages on the death of a former Chief of Naval Staff – it appears likely that ISPR issued a statement on the North Waziristan IBO directly to news outlets or to reporters covering the security beat. The Bajaur attack received muted coverage, while the attack in Lower Dir received no attention from mainstream Pakistani media.
TTP attacks have increased in frequency, if not momentum or scale of casualties inflicted, over the past few weeks. In a daring attack on the morning of 1 May, between 30 and 40 Taliban militants attacked a Pakistan Army post at Lakaro in an attempt to infiltrate Bajaur district from across the Afghan border. Though the attack was not reported in mainstream media, a source with knowledge of the incident maintained that Pakistan Army and FC troops inflicted “heavy casualties” on the attackers, forcing them to flee and leave “numerous dead bodies behind”. The source did not specify fatalities among Pakistani security forces in this particular incident.
The official TTP spokesman – identified only by the nom de guerre “Muhammad Khurasani” – stated in an interview to an unnamed Pakistani radio channel that both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are united in thought and ideology, and “all Taliban are good” so there is no validity in the concept of ‘good Taliban versus bad Taliban’. He alleged that the TTP receives support from elements within Pakistan Army who oppose “oppressive and anti-religion policies”, as well as from religious conservatives who he praised for motivating and recruiting the Pakistani youth to “die for their religion”. More recently, the TTP also announced its support for the TLP, who have mobilized violently on the issue of blasphemy over the past few years – despite the fact that both groups have different, and somewhat oppositional, sectarian allegiances.
The TTP spokesman also insisted that the group seeks to avoid disturbing neighboring countries like India and Iran, because “Islam has always taught [us] to seek better relations with neighbors”. Interestingly, disturbing Pakistan’s security and stability seems to be either irrelevant to, or unavoidable for, at least the Pakistani Taliban, while the Afghan Taliban conveniently remain comfortably mum on the matter.
These developments lend credence to the growing rifts between the Pakistani security establishment and the Taliban, which came to the fore after the latter refused to participate in the UN-backed Afghan peace meeting in Ankara. While Pakistan would definitely feel embarrassed that they could not coax the Taliban to seriously commit to intra-Afghan peace negotiations on the global stage, the enduring symbiotic relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban should be infinitely more distressing for Pakistani intelligence.
If the ideological synergy between IEA (Afghan Taliban) and TTP (Pakistani Taliban) has actually been operationalized in the tactical domain, then it appears the Taliban have indeed learnt a thing or two from Pakistan’s alleged stratagem of security hedging: the notion that Pakistan covertly nurtured and sustained proxy militias to prevent the US – and by extension, India – from becoming entrenched in Afghanistan. So the Afghan Taliban now seem to be playing with the same cards; to not only exhibit a degree of independence from their supposed overlords in the Pakistani establishment, but also be in a position to hurt Pakistan for its perceived perfidy in the past, or for its attempts to impose excessive controls on the Taliban in the current scenario.
Is it any wonder that Pakistan’s decades-old brashly injudicious strategy of ‘strategic depth’ is now quickly becoming the basis for its own ‘strategic death’?
Shemrez is a research analyst specialising in economic security and the political economy of terrorism, extremism and identity. He most recently served as an intelligence officer at NACTA, Government of Pakistan, where he helped establish the Joint Intelligence Directorate (JID). He tweets at @shemrez.