The return of the dreaded Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to Pakistan's northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is causing great anxiety among civilians.
The Islamist militant group once controlled large swathes of the mountainous region that borders Afghanistan and is populated by Pashtuns. Tens of thousands of people were killed and millions more displaced in years of TTP attacks and the army's large-scale military operations against it. The group finally fled to Afghanistan in 2014.
But residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been shocked recently by the return of hundreds of TTP fighters. They are alarmed that the militants have come back even before Islamabad signed the peace agreement it has been negotiating with the group since late last year.
For many, their reappearance heralds a return of the TTP's oppressive control when targeted assassinations, bomb attacks, extortion, and harassment dominated daily life in some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
After the TTP emerged as an umbrella organization of various minor Taliban factions in 2007, residents of a narrow strip of Pashtun tribal territory formerly called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the alpine Swat Valley in the northern Hindu Kush Mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bore the brunt of the violence.
This is why the residents of Swat and the nearby Lower Dir districts staged protests this month after TTP militants established checkpoints, injured and kidnapped security forces, and were blamed for targeted killings and high-profile attacks.
The residents of North Waziristan, a restive district in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have been protesting the rising insecurity and assassinations for more than a month.
On August 17, a majority of the main political and civic leaders in Swat gathered there to declare their opposition to a return of the Taliban. One day earlier, a meeting of the major opposition political parties rejected holding any negotiations with the TTP.
"The TTP's show of strength is gauging the public reaction to their demand of returning to these regions with their arms," said Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher who tracks the group.
In talks with Islamabad, the group has insisted that its fighters must return to their home districts with their weapons.
Media reports suggest the TTP also wants Islamabad to roll back the 2018 merger of the tribal areas into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a withdrawal of state security forces, and the right to impose Islamic Shari'a law in parts of the province.
Sayed says the Pakistani government -- particularly its powerful army that initiated the negotiations -- and the TTP know that the group has been involved in violence, including murders and other atrocities against locals.
"The TTP militants wanted to see how locals would react to their return," he told RFE/RL.
The reaction was swift.
On August 16, a massive rally in Maidan, the main town in Lower Dir, called on Islamabad to protect people from the Taliban and ensure peace.
The protests followed a similar one on August 12 that was prompted by an August 7 attack on Malik Liaqat Khan, a provincial lawmaker of the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf political party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Four people were killed in the gun attack on Khan's vehicle, which left him injured.
"We are not willing to tolerate any Taliban or other terrorists," Jabber Khan, a lawyer who helped organize the protests in Lower Dir, told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.
On August 12, residents of Swat protested across the scenic region, which due to better security in recent years has again become a leading tourist destination for Pakistanis seeking to escape the scorching summer heat in the cities and plains across the country.
The Pakistani military, too, appeared to have felt the growing public resentment. An August 13 statement by the military's media wing declared reports about the TTP presence as "grossly exaggerated and misleading."
However, it acknowledged that "armed men" were present on some mountains in Swat and Dir.
"Presence of militants anywhere will not be tolerated, and [full force will be used to deal with them] if required," the statement said.
Mohammad Ali Saif, an adviser to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial government, ruled out any agreement that allowed armed TTP members to return.
"There is nothing that allows anyone to return with their weapons," he told Radio Mashaal, adding that the TTP fighters already returned to Afghanistan after officials told them they were not supposed to return with their arms.
"We would launch an operation if we had evidence that they have gathered somewhere in larger numbers and pose a threat to peace," he said.
The TTP also responded to the growing public pressure against their presence. It blamed "secular and ethnonationalist" lobbies opposing the return of its supporters.
"They do not want to see this country united and peaceful," an August 13 statement by the group said.
But political leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are not convinced.
"We are against imposing a war on our homeland again," Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights organization, told a gathering of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's political leaders on August 16.
He claimed the Taliban had already made a significant comeback in Waziristan, formally divided between the South Waziristan and North Waziristan districts.
Pashteen said several government agreements with the TTP and other Taliban factions before its eventual departure to Afghanistan in 2014 didn't lead to peace.
"We are not against the negotiations, but we oppose theatrics in the name of talks," he said. "We have no choice but to resist."
Since its emergence in 2018, the PTM has earned the wrath of Pakistani authorities by accusing the powerful military of supporting various Taliban factions. The PTM blames the Taliban and the military for tormenting Pashtun civilians, who make up most of the estimated 80,000 civilians killed and more than 6 million people displaced since the Pakistani Taliban emerged in 2003.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker, said the entire negotiation process is aimed at "tackling" the Pashtun political resistance against Talibanization, a term denoting growing Islamic fundamentalism.
"The TTP has been violently stopping the election campaign of Pashtun nationalists in Pakhtunkhwa," he said, adding that Pakistan’s military wants to orchestrate "political engineering" to empower Islamists at the cost of secular Pashtuns.
Secular Pashtuns became the main target for the TTP after the Awami National Party (ANP), a moderate ethnonationalist group, formed the provincial government after winning the 2008 parliamentary elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. More than 1,000 ANP members were killed in attacks by the Islamist militants. ANP lost the 2013 election partially because of the TTP's attacks. Khattak survived a suicide attack in 2008.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan expert at the University of London, agrees.
She said the military appears to not be worried about the domestic blowback from the TTP's return.
"The institutional thinking [inside the military] is that the tribal areas are religiously conservative and the TTP should be allowed to implement their Shari'a-based system to keep the rest of Pakistan secure," she told RFE/RL.
Siddiqa said the military sees the eastern province of Punjab as Pakistan's core and whose protection supersedes peace and security in the peripheral regions.
But residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are not convinced by this reasoning.
"Our only demand is that the current insecurity must end," said Adnan Khan, a resident of Maidan and one of the protesters against the return of the TTP.