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Returning Pakistani Taliban Employs Extortion As Control Grows


Hundreds of people protest in Swat on September 18, criticizing the government for failing to prevent the return of the Pakistani Taliban.

Pashtun businessman Jamshid Khan (a pseudonym) invested several million dollars in his native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in northwestern Pakistan seven years ago.

The young entrepreneur hoped that his factories and associated distribution facilities in the provincial capital, Peshawar, would create steady jobs for hundreds of people and bring him handsome profits.

Khan's businesses did grow despite chronic power cuts and a general economic slump. He even hoped that his homeland could recover from years of Taliban violence and a government military operation that killed tens of thousands and displaced millions between 2003 and 2014.

Taliban Redux

But members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) knocked on his door last month. The militants have returned to the province amid a stalled peace deal with Islamabad in drawn-out negotiations that began late last year.

"Ignore this at your peril," Khan says of a key message in the threatening WhatsApp texts he received last month. It demanded that he pay more than $100,000 in extortion money or prepare to be attacked.

As he attempted to verify whether the messages were sent by the TTP, the militants threw a grenade into one of his warehouses a week later. Luckily, it missed his workers but showed the group was serious about its threats.

Thousands of people join a peace march in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Khyber district on September 4.
Thousands of people join a peace march in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Khyber district on September 4.

Khan says he reported the threats to police and approached senior security officials to seek protection and demand help with his situation. He says most formal meetings ended in cautious assurances. But friends within the government warned him that he "should not count" on them for protection.

"Either pay up or buy yourself a bulletproof vehicle and move your family to Islamabad or Lahore," he said of a private message he received from government figures after pressing for help.

The Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and eastern city of Lahore received a large portion of the entrepreneurs and wealthy families from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that fled the Taliban violence that started in 2003, peaked around 2009, and eventually ebbed after most TTP fighters fled to Afghanistan after 2014.

Khan says fellow businessmen encouraged him to seek a deal with the militants by negotiating to pay less through intermediaries. This worked and he eventually paid a reduced part of the $100,000 the militants initially demanded.

"The key thing I learned was that the TTP is demanding extortion from everyone they think can pay," he said. "Most, if not all, wealthy individuals have paid it already."

Although not reported in the media, the TTP's extortion is now so extensive across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that on September 20 the group issued a statement calling on people to not pay extortion in several northern districts of the province.

"If anyone asks you for a shakedown in the name of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, please contact us so we can unmask them," the statement said, offering a number for contacting the group.

Despite the alarming increase in Taliban extortion demands, the issue has yet to attract national attention. Since spring, the country of some 220 million has been gripped by an unfolding political crisis that saw the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan in a vote of no confidence in April.

Heatwaves and unprecedented summer rains followed by devastating floods that engulfed a huge portion of Pakistan contributed to the misery. Islamabad has been reeling from an economic slump marked by hyperinflation, rising unemployment, and a sinking currency.

Last month Pakistan's powerful military described the return of TTP militants as a "misperception" that was "grossly exaggerated and misleading." It has promised to deal with the group with "full force if required."

'Stop This Fire'

But opposition politicians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are not convinced. Lawmaker Sardar Hussain Babak, a prominent leader of the secular Awami National Party, says the Taliban is tightening its grip on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

"Every well-off individual in this province, including me, is receiving threatening phone calls [from the Taliban] demanding extortion money," he told lawmakers last week. "We have repeatedly demanded action from the government but have not seen any political will."

Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), the ruling political party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, appears to be in a tight spot over the TTP's return. For years its leaders avoided criticizing the TTP's atrocities. Instead, PTI leaders urged Islamabad to end its insurgency through talks.

But its leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are rattled by the return of the TTP.

Murad Saeed, a PTI leader, represents Swat -- the restive northern district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa -- in the Pakistani parliament. He recently criticized the Pakistani military for conducting inconclusive and opaque talks with the TTP, failing to prevent the return of TTP militants to the province, and not taking the threat posed by their return seriously.

"Please stop this fire from spreading," he said in an emotional video message last week. "Please consult the people before deciding on their future and stop playing with their lives."

Since June, dozens of noisy protests and sit-ins across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have pressed Pakistani authorities to protect them from Taliban militants returning to the province.

The Pakistani military, however, says it is committed to protecting the country from militants. "The Pakistani Army is determined to defend Pakistan's borders against the menace of terrorism," the military's media office said.

The September 19 statement was issued after militants killed three soldiers in the restive North Waziristan district. The military said militants had crossed over from Afghanistan.

'No Money On The Table'

Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan security expert at the University of London, sees little interest within the Pakistani military in stemming the rising Taliban tide along the country's western borders with Afghanistan.

She says that unlike the early round of Pakistan's domestic war on terrorism, Islamabad is unlikely to receive Western financial support, particularly generous funding from the United States. "Now, with no money on the table, the Pakistani military is unwilling to fight the Taliban, which is leading to extortion in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa," she said.

TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud (left) appears with another movement leader in an undisclosed location. (file photo)
TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud (left) appears with another movement leader in an undisclosed location. (file photo)

Islamabad became a frontline ally in the U.S.-led global war on terrorism after the 9/11 terror attacks. It received more than $20 billion in military and political assistance over the next 15 years. Washington reimbursed Islamabad from the Coalition Support Fund for counterterrorism operations and cooperation in supplying its forces in landlocked Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military began small-scale counterinsurgency operations in the South Waziristan district in 2003. It gradually embarked on large-scale operations culminating in the 2014 operation Zarb-e Azb in North Waziristan.

More than 80,000 Pakistanis, mostly ethnic Pashtun residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, were killed in the Taliban attack and military offensives. Several thousand Pakistani troops were also killed in the fighting, which displaced more than 6 million people.

Siddiqa says the return of the TTP to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its rapidly mounting control spells disaster for Pakistan. "What will start in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will not end in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, " she emphasized. "It will extend all over the country."

Back in Peshawar, businessman Khan is already thinking about moving his investments to the relative safety of Islamabad.

"I don't want to end up in a hopeless situation," he said.

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