ZIA UR REHMAN, Contributing writer

September 28, 2021 


ISLAMABAD — The Afghan Taliban’s recapture of Kabul has emboldened jihadi movements in the region and raised concerns that a revival of Islamist insurgency could threaten foreign investments, particularly those linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Since the Afghan capital fell, there has been a significant rise in attacks on Pakistani security forces by the militant Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which operates out of bases over the border in Afghanistan.

The TTP is Pakistan’s most feared terror group, and has ideological links to the Afghan Taliban. It has chalked up hundreds of attacks on military and civilian targets in the past, prior to the recent upturn against Pakistani security forces.

The TTP mounted 53 attacks this year up to June, according to monitoring by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), a think tank in Islamabad. From July 1 to Sept. 15, TTP stepped that up to 55 attacks that involved suicide bombers, roadside explosive devices, snipers and ambushes.

According to Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of PIPS, the Afghan Taliban’s triumph has emboldened Islamic militants, including those in the TTP, and boosted morale.

Formed in December 2007 with the merger of smaller militant outfits, the TTP was crumbling under a sustained Pakistani crackdown that forced its relocation over the border into Afghanistan in 2014.

Matters were made worse by the deaths of successive TTP leaders in U.S. drone attacks and internal rifts. Of late, however, the group has been reinvigorated by disgruntled groups setting aside their differences and the ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Kabul.

A United Nations Security Council report in June estimated that there were between 2,500 and 6,000 TTP fighters on the Afghan side of the border. In August, the Afghan Taliban released thousands of prisoners, mainly militants, including TTP leaders such as its former number two, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad.

“The wooing back of disgruntled groups and release of prisoners have increased the TTP’s capability and military strength, hindering Pakistani efforts to eradicate terrorism within its borders,” Rana told Nikkei Asia.

Islamabad and Beijing both held TTP responsible for a suicide attack on July 14 that killed nine Chinese engineers working on a hydroelectric project in Pakistan’s Kohistan District. “More Chinese people or Chinese projects may be attacked in order to increase pressure on the Pakistan government,” the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s English-language mouthpiece, reported on Sept. 18, quoting Chinese security experts.

The upturn in terrorism forced New Zealand and England to cancel cricket tours of Pakistan on security grounds. A New Zealand statement on Sept. 17 gave an escalation in “threat levels” in Pakistan and an on-the-ground security assessment as reasons for its cancellation.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a Sept. 24 interview that Pakistan was “extremely concerned” about terrorism threats from Afghanistan, particularly from the TTP, and held the group responsible for most of the attacks on Chinese citizens. “Pakistan will work with the authorities in Afghanistan to halt TTP and other terrorism from Afghanistan,” he said.

The TTP has sanctuaries along the shared border in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, but the Afghan Taliban is unlikely to meet Islamabad’s demands to flush them out and forcibly repatriate fighters reluctant to to return to Pakistan of their own accord.

“Afghan Taliban has never raised objections or tried to stop TTP from carrying out attacks inside Pakistan despite enjoying close ties to the Pakistani intelligence agencies,” said Abdul Bari, a former Afghan security official who has served in Nangarhar province. “Similarly, the TTP never objected to the Afghan Taliban’s alliance with Pakistan.”

Islamabad hopes to weaken the TTP by persuading the group’s rank and file to come home from Kunar and Nangarhar, where they fled with their families to evade Pakistani military operations that leveled their homes in 2014.

Last week, President Arif Alvi of Pakistan and his foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said that the government would pardon the group if its members laid down their arms, abandoned their militant ideology and respected the constitution.

The TTP rejected Islamabad’s amnesty overture unless it came with an undertaking to impose Islamic laws nationwide. “Pardons are usually offered to those who commit crimes, but we are quite proud of our struggle,” the TTP said in a statement.

Iftikhar Firdous, a Peshawar-based security analyst, said that TTP rejected Islamabad’s offer because it enjoys the protection of the Afghan Taliban, and also “because it still has the capacity to carry out attacks in different parts of the country.”Afghan Taliban and Pakistani troops guard Torkham border crossing in mid-September as Afghan civilians wait to enter Pakistan.    © Getty Images

Although some smaller groups do appear ready to lay down their arms, Firdous does not expect anybody in the mainstream TTP to sit down for negotations if their demands are not going to be accepted, “no matter how unreasonable.”

Most observers agree that expelling the TTP from Afghanistan would not be easy for the Afghan Taliban.

“Islamabad should know it that the TTP, al-Qaida and other transnational militant groups are part of a larger jihadi network with a similar global agenda, and they helped the Afghan Taliban capture most parts of Afghanistan,” Bari told Nikkei.

“If the Afghan Taliban tried to crush the TTP’s sanctuaries under pressure from Islamabad, they could join the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria-Khurasan (ISIS-K) that has been posing a challenge for the Taliban’s newly formed government in Kabul.”