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Strategic miscalculations regarding TTP

Given the political and economic instability and uncertainty afflicting Pakistan, it is all too easy to forget the continuing biggest security challenge for the country: the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Fortunately, we have been reminded once again of this threat by the publication in Dawn, July 10, 2023, of a report by journalists associated with The Khorasan Diary, a digital news and research platform. The report is a startling indictment of our security establishment’s illusions, mistakes and miscalculations on how to deal with the TTP after its ouster by military operations from the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and its subsequent finding safe havens across the border on Afghan soil.

First and foremost, and before we discuss the thrust of the report cited above, it may be useful to recall how the TTP came into being. Pakistan’s adventure in proxy warfare in Afghanistan since the 1970s (incipient at first, full blown later) eventually yielded from amongst the ranks of the Pashtun tribal areas’ denizens engaged in helping the Afghan mujahideen against the communist regime in Kabul and its (interventionist) Soviet partners, the embryonic local Taliban. What our strategists overlooked was the effect and influence Afghan mujahideen ideology and politics would have on the local Pashtun tribesmen. If the mujahideen phase of the Afghan wars may be considered the beginning of this influence, the 1990s launch by Pakistan of the Afghan Taliban after the Soviets had departed, the US-led west turned its back on the shattered country, and Afghanistan was plunged into a civil war, consolidated this influence into a definite religious extremist jihadi tendency. The Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad in 2007 was the trigger for the public announcement of the TTP as an armed jihadi group seeking to overthrow the Pakistani state and impose its own extremist version of an Islamic system on the country.

After 2007, the TTP boldly carried out terrorist actions, particularly in KP.

The turning point in the response of the security establishment’s response to this threat, after repeated rounds of negotiations and agreements (always broken by the terrorists), came with the Army Public School Peshawar massacre of students and their teachers in December 2014. Although counterinsurgency military operations had been mounted before in the tribal areas to scotch terrorist outbreaks, an unprecedentedly heavy military campaign named Zarb-e-Azb exerted enough pressure on the terrorists holed up in KP’s tribal areas to force them to retreat across the border into Afghanistan, where they found safe havens courtesy the Afghan Taliban. I had commented on this development at the time by pointing out that we had merely succeeded in ‘exporting’ the problem, not scotched the snake. In fact, the TTP’s retreat was accompanied by leaving behind sleeper cells inside Pakistan for a time when they would once again be needed.

With the 2021 withdrawal of the US-led west’s forces from Afghanistan and the seamless takeover by the Afghan Taliban, the report mentioned above details the illusions of our security establishment regarding the role the new Afghan rulers might play in helping resolve the TTP issue. The security establishment’s hopelessly wrong view that the Afghan Taliban were our friends (after all, had we not risked US ire by supporting them through a dual policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds?) and would assist in resolving the TTP conundrum. What we forgot perhaps was that even after 9/11, the Afghan Taliban ignored our advice, refused to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US, and preferred being ousted from power by the US invasion rather than seek a saner course. The Afghan Taliban in this early outcome indicated that though they owed a debt of gratitude to Pakistan for its help in coming to power in 1996, they were not amenable to advice from any quarter, including Islamabad, that militated against their ideology.

Had this earlier experience been learnt from, the miscalculation our security establishment made in relying on the Afghan Taliban to persuade the TTP to come to some reasonable, mutually acceptable solution would not have ensued. The Afghan Taliban-inspired negotiations process with the TTP in 2021 produced a short-lived ceasefire, during which the TTP spread its organisational tentacles not only within the tribal areas and KP that were their original base, but in the Pashtun and even Baloch areas of Balochistan (where they had no presence before) and, alarmingly, in Punjab as well. In other words, the sincerity of the TTP negotiators can be judged by the fact that they used the interval of non-hostilities to reorganise and strengthen their preparations for a fresh launch of terrorist actions. These are by now mounting by the day.

It has been this writer’s long held view that religiously inspired extremist terrorists are not open to rational argument. They therefore cannot be negotiated with without incurring the bloody costs of the other side’s interpretation of such negotiations as reflecting the weakness of the state, which they then try to take advantage of to further their violent ends. Short of unconditional surrender or being wiped out, such fanatics cannot be reasoned with or accept any compromise. The track record of negotiations and agreements (inevitably broken by the terrorists) since 2004 points to this inevitable conclusion. Each time the state has sought to negotiate with such terrorists, it has suffered reverses.

Currently, the illusion that the Afghan Taliban owe us for helping them return to power in 2021 has been exposed for its hollowness. The Doha Agreements specified that the Afghan Taliban, after returning to power, would not host or allow any terrorist organisation threatening neighbouring countries to use its soil for such purposes. So much for the paper on which those Agreements were written and signed.

The threat from a resurgent TTP is greater than ever before. Our current political and economic troubles are an ideal landscape for it to expand its reach and terrorist actions. The security establishment has in April 2023 ‘disowned’ (its own initiated) talks with the TTP. Now the military, security establishment and present and future governments have to converge on the agenda of fighting the TTP terrorists to the finish. Otherwise, amongst all the other ‘good’ news, we may be doomed.

Rashed Rahman, "Strategic miscalculations regarding TTP," Business recorder. 2023-07-11.
Keywords: Social sciences , Economic instability , Security challenge , Security establishment , Lal masjid , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , Balochistan , KPK , TTP , 2004 , 2023

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