When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, government officials, retired military officers, and hard-line clerics in neighboring Pakistan celebrated the militant group’s return to power.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said the Taliban had broken the “shackles of slavery” by toppling the Western-backed Afghan government.
But even amid the celebrations, observers warned that the Taliban’s forcible takeover of Afghanistan in August could galvanize Pakistan’s own violent insurgency.
Those fears have now been realized as the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has intensified its attacks in recent months.
In a further blow to Islamabad, the Afghan Taliban has been unwilling to crack down on the TTP, a close ideological and organizational ally. A major Pakistani military offensive in 2014 drove many of the militants from the country's tribal belt across the border to Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban facilitated a monthlong cease-fire between the TTP and Islamabad. But the truce ended on December 9 after peace talks broke down, triggering a new wave of TTP attacks in Pakistan. The Afghan militants have links with both Islamabad and the TTP.
Analysts say the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has emboldened and strengthened the TTP. The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in August has significantly reduced U.S. air strikes in the region, allowing the TTP to operate more freely.
TTP fighters have also obtained sophisticated weaponry, including U.S.-made firearms, which their Afghan allies seized from Afghanistan's defeated armed forces.
Sharp Uptick In Attacks
Pakistan recorded at least 294 militant attacks in 2021, a 56 percent increase compared to the previous year, according to the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS).
The think tank attributed the sharp rise in attacks -- the majority carried out by the TTP -- to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
At least 395 people -- more than half of them security personnel -- were killed during 2021, added the report, which was released on January 1.
The TTP claimed 45 attacks in December, the highest of any month last year.
The TTP carried out most of its attacks in the tribal belt in northwest Pakistan, its former stronghold, and in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan.
The uptick in violence coincided with the end of the monthlong cease-fire between the TTP and Islamabad. The truce was announced on November 10 after weeks of secret talks between Pakistani military officials and representatives of the TTP in Afghanistan that were mediated by the Afghan Taliban, sources told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.
The cease-fire was intended to pave the way for formal talks over a negotiated end to the TTP’s 14-year insurgency in Pakistan, where thousands of people have been killed in militant attacks and clashes between the TTP and the military.
But the talks broke down after disagreements over terms. The TTP demanded the release of 100 fighters in Pakistani prisons, while Islamabad only released a dozen. In return, the government demanded a nationwide truce. The TTP also demanded the implementation of Islamic Shar’ia law in Pakistan’s tribal region, a demand that observers said the government would likely reject.
Since the talks collapsed, the TTP has carried out a spate of deadly attacks against Pakistani security forces. The militant group claimed responsibility for the killing of four Pakistani soldiers in the North Waziristan tribal district on December 30. A day earlier, one police officer was killed in the same district by armed militants on motorcycles who managed to escape.
‘TTP A Long-term Threat’
Abdul Basit, a Pakistani counterterrorism and security expert, says the TTP is sending a signal to Islamabad that it is negotiating from a position of strength.
Riven internally, debilitated by the death of successive leaders, and forced from its strongholds, the TTP was seen for years as a largely spent force. But the group has reemerged over the past two years, unifying squabbling factions and unleashing a wave of deadly attacks.
But the TTP is no longer the same militant outfit that wreaked havoc in Pakistan from 2007 to 2014. Under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud, more of a religious figure than a fighter, who has been in charge since 2018, the TTP has retained its close links with Al-Qaeda, the U.S.-designated terrorist network.
But it has also become organizationally decentralized and reduced indiscriminate attacks against civilians, observers say.
Basit says the TTP mostly targets Pakistani security forces and has moved away from a global to local jihadist narrative.
“The group’s change in focus and rhetoric coupled with the sanctuaries at its disposal in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime makes the TTP a long-term threat for Pakistan,” he says.
Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher who tracks militant groups in the region, says the Afghan Taliban is unlikely to bow to Islamabad’s demand that it expel the TTP or prevent it from using Afghan territory from carrying out attacks in Pakistan.
“Because of the sympathy and support in the Afghan Taliban rank and file for the TTP, it is not only difficult but impossible for their leadership to initiate action against the TTP,” he says.
Sayed says Pakistan could target TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan. But that, he says, will likely strain Islamabad’s ties with the Afghan Taliban.
Last month, a suspected Pakistani drone strike targeted Faqir Mohammad, a senior TTP leader, in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar. But the missile fired by the drone failed to explode. The incident triggered condemnation by the Taliban regime in Kabul.
Observers say the TTP has also been boosted by the pullout of foreign troops from Afghanistan in August and the reduced number of U.S. drone strikes in the region. Over the years, U.S. air strikes were successful in eliminating successive TTP leaders and commanders.
But with the U.S. counterterrorism capability in the region severely diminished, TTP fighters have been allowed to move and operate relatively freely, observers say.
The militants often shifted weapons and held meetings during the night to avoid detection, a source in Pakistan’s tribal belt with knowledge of the TTP’s military strategy told Radio Mashaal. But that, he says, has now changed.
In early December, the TTP released a video that it claimed showed its leader, Mehsud, traveling in a convoy of cars and visiting different training camps and commanders inside Afghanistan in broad daylight.
The Pakistani source added that the TTP, which has mostly used light arms, mortars, and homemade improvised explosives devices (IEDs), has obtained modern weapons. That includes, he said, U.S.-made M16 machine guns and M4 assault rifles fitted with night vision.
That has coincided with an increase in nighttime sniper attacks by the TTP, the source added.
Observers say the weapons are likely from the stockpiles amassed by the Afghan Taliban, which seized millions of dollars in American-made weapons and equipment from Afghan security forces.
Civilians caught up for years in TTP attacks and Pakistani Army offensives are bracing for more violence, with their hopes of peace dashed.
“The real problem is that the government and the TTP want to secure their own interests,” says Abdul Salam, a tribal elder from the South Waziristan tribal district. “The result is trouble and destruction for the common people.”