<strong>For Pakistan, dealing with its Taliban problem is a walk on eggshells</strong>

The recent chain of troubling events involving the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, wreaking havoc paints an alarming picture of rising instability across Pakistan. At a disturbing rate, the TTP has killed members of Pakistan’s security services, brazenly broken into a prison, breached military checkpoints, attacked mosques, and undermined Pakistanis’ confidence in their government’s assurance of security. Amid Pakistan’s toxic political scene, the TTP threat has accelerated the danger of many smoldering fires across Pakistan’s sprawling network of jihadists waiting to be lit.

Alas, despite Pakistan’s spirited crisis marketing, much of the country’s internal upheaval is a consequence of its own making. Amid the complex of a divided nation stoked by anti-Americanism and on the brink of financial default, the government’s discriminatory treatment of ethnic Pashtuns and indigenous communities has steadily weaponized local grievances against the state. The Pakistani establishment has treated those communities effectively as a colony, disenfranchising the population and creating an extremist mercurial street. Historically, Pashtuns have not taken pleasure in how they are viewed as solid fighters, but rather that they are survivalists. And today, the establishment fears moderate Pashtuns more than extremist ones like the Pakistani Taliban. To be sure, the Pakistani Taliban are neither Afghan nor Indian, but disgruntled ordinary Pakistanis who are waging a dangerous domestic insurgency against the state.

But they are not alone in their struggle.

For years, the TTP delivered significant operational support to their ideological siblings in the Afghan Taliban and later romanticized the Taliban’s reclaiming of their lost emirate. For the TTP, the Afghan Taliban’s takeover presented an important victory template—a model the former has shrewdly followed to carve out its own Sharia-compliant territory inside Pakistan. To do so, elements within the Afghan Taliban have returned the favor to select TTP factions for their historical cooperation, including offering some TTP members refuge inside Afghanistan while also delivering others to Pakistan. Scores of TTP members have since relocated to Afghanistan—a bitter reality for ordinary Afghans who often derisively identify certain Afghan districts as the “TTP districts,” whose members despise being referred to as “foreign fighters.”

Quite fatefully, the Pakistani Taliban has slowly mutated into a reverse insurgency, tactically supported by elements within the Taliban government who ironically owe their own victory to Pakistan. This epiphenomenon has turned the tables against Islamabad—a cruel irony in which Pakistan’s stability is threatened by its own Taliban while also betrayed by old friends in the Taliban government. Predictably, the phenomenon has created tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban government and has put the latter in a tough spot, especially over Islamabad’s demands that the Taliban rulers contain the TTP inside Afghanistan.

But what has often been ignored by Pakistani leaders is that the TTP is not a monolithic organization, but a consortium of various spinoffs and breakaway factions craftily coalesced under the current leader, Noor Wali Mehsud. Beyond their partners in the Taliban’s government, this consortium today enjoys strong tactical relationships and transactional alliances with several competing groups. It involves al-Qaeda, militant Uyghurs, Pakistani and Iranian Baloch groups, Islamic State-Khorasan Province, Uzbek jihadists like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, as well as scores of unaffiliated jihadists. Once regarded as proxy groups, most of these jihadists now command their own proxies. This ineffable network ensures that the TTP does not face a shortage of volunteers or resources like weaponry, raw materials, and fertilizers used in explosives, nor encounter logistic hurdles, problems accessing the black market, or finding targets to hit.

For their part, the Afghan Taliban are either tied by kinship or owe gratitude to these groups for years of collaboration—and thus appear unwilling or unable to control them.

In this frenzy, Pakistan has tried sending a message to the Taliban government by conducting sporadic cross-border strikes against TTP hideouts in Afghanistan, including in eastern Kunar and Khost provinces. While those strikes likely had the blessings of senior Haqqani Taliban—Pakistan’s all-weather friend and a governing partner in the Afghan Taliban’s government—other powerful factions in the southern Taliban have objected to these attacks. This includes the Taliban’s defense minister, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, who publicly warned Pakistan against such operations.

As these developments unfold, it remains to be seen how they will shape Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban government, particularly the southern Taliban. But it is more important to watch how the TTP’s partnership with the Taliban government might evolve, especially if the Haqqani Taliban sign off on future Pakistani operations. These brewing tensions portend an unequal cost for the Taliban government, likely benefiting southern Taliban rulers but straining the TTP’s ties with the Haqqani Taliban. Further Pakistani attacks against TTP camps in Afghanistan (if carried out with the Haqqani Taliban’s blessing) also risk fueling tribal tensions between the TTP and the Haqqanis, who have historically clashed.

For now, the Haqqani Taliban have played “peacemaker” between the TTP and the Pakistani state, which resulted in a rushed ceasefire agreement that soon collapsed. One important factor behind the failed agreement was arguably the duplicitous role Pakistan played during the talks with TTP. Pakistan exploited the dialogue as a trap to lure senior TTP commanders out of the woods to the negotiating table—only to target and kill several of them under the Taliban’s watch inside Afghanistan.

To be sure, even though Pakistan has claimed plausible deniability for the killings, the Pakistani Taliban are no fools and scrapped the ceasefire agreement. Whether those assassinations were endorsed by the Afghan Taliban or not, it certainly put them in a tricky position with the Pakistani Taliban. Although the Taliban rulers have since taken remedial actions to relocate many TTP members, it would be foolish for Pakistan to again expect the Afghan Taliban’s divine intervention towards facilitating another TTP dialogue. But even if the Taliban government initiates another dialogue by securing concrete security guarantees from Pakistan, it is unlikely that the TTP will participate at a senior level.

For now, the Taliban government will be reluctant to endanger its multilayered partnership with the TTP, primarily because it cannot afford to turn them into an enemy. Despite Pakistan’s recent assassinations of senior TTP members in Afghan territory, the Pakistani Taliban and the Taliban government have managed to stick together as codependents, believing their ultimate survival depends on it. As a result, the Pakistani establishment has openly flirted with the idea of expanded cross-border operations against the TTP inside Afghanistan. Yet, the establishment appears to have deferred the final decision for a signoff in Washington, principally because Pakistan needs US resources to fight it. But expanded cross-border operations carry a greater risk of making Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban government yet more unmanageable.

Going forward, three key developments could complicate Pakistani efforts against the TTP.

  1. The Pakistani Taliban are likely to change their operational tactics and push for territorial gains inside the country. This could involve adjustments in TTP operational fieldcraft, arsenal, networks of facilitators, and how they pick targets, including those involving the Chinese. Already, Pakistani authorities have acknowledged that the suicide bomber at this week’s mosque attack received help from the government’s security forces. This speaks volumes about the TTP’s deep informant network to identify key target locations, including those veiled in the middle of cities. Meanwhile, the group’s lethality will grow as it expands its tactical collaborations with the regional network of commercial or unaffiliated jihadists.
  2. Pakistani leaders need to rethink how this homegrown threat has shifted public sympathy in local communities away from Pakistani soldiers and towards extremists. Consider this: when ordinary people in affected communities refuse to offer funeral prayers to the slain members of Pakistan’s army or police, it should raise eyebrows among the country’s establishment. To an extent, this has made the establishment wary to direct its army to take extreme measures against the Pakistani Taliban.
  3. While the TTP is not Washington’s fight, Pakistan has sought US support and resources to fight it. Some targeted US assistance is likely to follow, but should the fight take Pakistan deep into Afghan territory, it would seriously escalate tensions with the Taliban government and the Afghan people. In such an event, it is not unlikely to expect more overt Taliban government support for the Pakistani Taliban.

For now, Islamabad faces a lose-lose scenario against the TTP in which its loss will be bigger than the Pakistani Taliban. But it is not too late for Pakistan to stop peeling the banana from the wrong end. Wholesale anti-TTP operations will not only strain its limited resources but also open a bloody Pandora’s box.

Instead, the Pakistani government could expand basic policing work inside the country and engage in a no-nonsense dialogue with the TTP, involving hard tradeoffs and compromises. The alternative risks Pakistan becoming another Lebanon.

Javid Ahmad is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and a nonresident scholar with the Middle East Institute. On Twitter: @ahmadjavid

The South Asia Center serves as the Atlantic Council’s focal point for work on the region as well as relations between these countries, neighboring regions, Europe, and the United States.

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