The killing of four top commanders of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan has struck a major blow to the militant group and cast doubts over a cease-fire and ongoing peace talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government.
In the wake of the killings, which occurred on August 7, the TTP leadership has held frantic discussions about how to deal with the loss of some of its top guns, observers say.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the separate deadly blasts that killed the commanders, experts suggest they could be result of an internal rift over the prospect of a lasting truce with Islamabad, which the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has fought to overthrow since 2007.
At stake is the future of an indefinite truce between the militants and Islamabad, as well as talks aimed at ending the TTP's deadly insurgency.
Continuing the cease-fire that has been in place for about two months could create bad blood among the TTP's leadership, experts say. But scrapping the truce and peace talks could lead to pressure from the Haqqani network, a powerful Afghan Taliban faction that hosts the TTP in Afghanistan and is believed to have close ties to the Pakistani intelligence services, they say.
The negotiations have been mediated by the Afghan Taliban, which has close ideological and organizational ties with the TTP. The Afghan militant group is also a longtime ally of Islamabad.
The TTP leadership has used Afghanistan as a sanctuary and staging ground for attacks against Islamabad since a major military offensive in 2014 drove the militants across the border.
Murky Details Surround Killings
The details of the killings remain murky.
While the TTP has confirmed the deaths of Abdul Wali (alias Omar Khalid Khorasani), Mufti Hassan Swati, and Hafiz Dawlat Khan Orakzai as they traveled in southeastern Afghanistan, it is unclear whether their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb or a drone strike. All three were believed to oppose peace talks with Pakistan.
Some have suggested that the three were headed to a meeting with representatives of the Afghan Taliban in the Barmal district of Afghanistan's Paktika Province, which borders the restive Pakistani districts of North and South Waziristan.
"It has yet to be ascertained what really happened, but the area where the three top TTP leaders were reported killed was once the stronghold of the Haqqani network," said Afrasiab Khattak, an analyst and former Pakistani senator.
Another top TTP commander, intelligence chief Abdul Rashid (alias Uqabi Bajauri), was killed just hours earlier by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar Province.
The four killings come just days after Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri was assassinated in a U.S. drone strike on his safe house in a posh area of Kabul believed to be under the control of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan Taliban's interior minister and head of the Haqqani network.
Heavily Targeted Militants
Khorasani, who had a $3 million U.S. bounty on his head, was a founding member of the TTP and was considered to be its most important and ruthless commander. He formed his own militant group, Jamat ul-Ahrar (JuA), in 2013. But he rejoined the TTP after current leader Noor Wali Mehsud took over in 2018.
Khorasani was a harsh critic of the government in Pakistan, and had consistently opposed negotiations between the TTP and Islamabad.
In 2014, Khorasani and the JuA were responsible for the massacre of 23 captured Pakistani soldiers as the TTP held peace talks with Pakistani authorities. Khorasani's JuA also claimed responsibility for a bomb blast in 2016 in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore that killed nearly 70 people, mostly from the Christian minority.
Mahmood Shah, a retired Pakistani brigadier who is now a defense and security analyst, says Khorasani's death was a crushing blow for the TTP. While other TTP commanders focused on the militant group's activities in North and South Waziristan, Khorasani was the face of the group in the neighboring districts of Khyber, Bajaur, and Mohmand. These districts were among the seven that compromised Pakistan's former tribal areas.
The two other TTP commanders killed alongside Khorasani in Afghanistan, Hassan and Dawlat, were also averse to the peace talks. The two had declared allegiance to Islamic State (IS) extremist group chief Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi in 2015. But they returned to the TTP after Khorasani merged the JuA into the fold of the TTP.
Big Questions Abound
A Peshawar-based researcher, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, says the killing of the TTP commanders is more indicative of an internal rift within the TTP than any outside factors.
There were suspicions among the TTP's leadership, the researcher says, about Hassan and Dawlat's allegiance due to their past links with IS. And in some circles, Hassan had been accused of having ties to the Western-backed Afghan government that was ousted by the Afghan Taliban in August 2021, he adds.
In one big change, a Pakistani military officer who was seen as the architect of the peace process has been transferred from the northwestern city of Peshawar in the wake of the killings.
Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, a former intelligence chief, was removed from his post as corps commander in Peshawar on August 8. Hameed had recently met the TTP chief in Kabul during which they agreed on the terms of a possible permanent truce. His transfer has raised questions within the TTP about the future of the talks, sources within the militant group say.
But a Peshawar-based journalist and expert on the TTP, Mushtaq Yousufzai, says the ongoing peace negotiations were rocky but making progress. "This was a difficult process. But unlike the past, this time, through concerted efforts, the two sides achieved enough headway," Yousufzai said. "The result was the indefinite cease-fire by the TTP."
The killings of the top commanders this week, he said, will have a considerable impact on the peace process "and much will depend on the leadership from the two sides as to how to find a way out."
Other experts agree on the significance of the deaths of the commanders, but say the losses will not necessarily mean the end of peace talks with Pakistan.
Muhammad Amir Rana, an Islamabad-based researcher and security analyst, says that the two sides have established some trust in the course of their negotiations. While that trust may have taken a hit, Rana says, he doesn't believe the killing of the top leaders "would totally scrap the peace process."
"The TTP may not be interested in scrapping it because it is the Pakistani state that is making compromises," he said, noting that the TTP still has leverage through the threat of restarting its militant campaign against the Pakistani government.
"Even if there is war again, the TTP will get a chance to push their narrative. So, both peace and fighting benefits them."