People stand amid the rubble, following a suicide blast in a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan February 1, 2023. REUTERS / Fayaz Aziz
Commentary / Asia 18 minutes

The Pakistani Taliban Test Ties between Islamabad and Kabul

Two large attacks on police installations have rocked Pakistan, compelling the authorities to rethink their approach to countering militancy. Their dilemma is that the insurgents’ main supporters – the new authorities in Afghanistan – are also their long-time allies.

Security agencies in Pakistan are on high alert following two major insurgent attacks on heavily fortified police compounds. On 30 January, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) hit police headquarters in Peshawar, capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the north-western province bordering Afghanistan, claiming the lives of more than 80 people, of whom all but three were police officers. It was one of the most lethal assaults in the restive province’s history and the deadliest ever on police in the country. Then, on 17 February, with authorities still reeling, the TTP struck a compound in the heart of Karachi, Pakistan’s economic hub, which housed the office of Sindh province’s police chief. This attack killed five – four security personnel and one civilian. The two strikes illustrate that the TTP insurgency has assumed threatening proportions.

Pakistan alleges that the TTP’s central command is based in Afghanistan, and the tempo of the group’s attacks in Pakistan rose soon after the Afghan Taliban took the Afghan capital Kabul in August 2021. With their ideological allies ensconced in power in Afghanistan, and U.S. and NATO forces gone, the Pakistani Taliban have been more capable of conducting operations across the porous mountain frontier between the two countries. Pakistan demanded that the Afghan Taliban evict the Pakistani insurgents, or contain their movements, but the Afghan Taliban insisted instead that Islamabad negotiate a peace deal with the TTP, offering to mediate. Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders, as well as many Pakistani security analysts, believe that the ensuing dialogue only emboldened the insurgents further. In November 2022, the talks collapsed.

The government has ramped up military and police operations.

In the wake of the Peshawar and Karachi attacks, the government has ramped up military and police operations, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, another province abutting Afghanistan, where militant attacks are surging. Yet Pakistani policymakers, including in the powerful military, say such operations will prove insufficient so long as the Pakistani Taliban enjoy sanctuary in Afghan territory. Safe in Afghanistan, they allege, the group can train fighters and plan attacks; militants can then slip into Pakistan and strike their targets before fleeing back across the border.

As militancy spikes, Islamabad has embarked on a renewed bid to cajole Kabul’s Taliban rulers into reining in the TTP. It is conveying to the Afghan Taliban, both via visits by high-profile delegations and through back channels, that failure to do so will have adverse consequences for bilateral relations. The Afghan Taliban has spurned such advice in the past. Indeed, the new rulers of Kabul have publicly denied that the TTP have any presence at all inside Afghanistan. An Afghan Taliban official told Crisis Group that representatives of the two governments are discussing the issue privately, so as to avoid mudslinging in the media – adding that, in the meantime, Pakistan must avoid military action in Afghan territory. But another high-profile TTP attack on Pakistani security forces could make Islamabad decide that it has no choice but to strike back at the TTP, including in its alleged Afghan havens. Such operations could inflame tensions along the disputed border.

A Tale of Two Alliances

The Pakistani Taliban are an amalgam of tribal Islamist outfits that merged in 2007. These groups rose up against the Pakistani state after the military moved to corral transnational jihadist groups, including some aligned with al-Qaeda, that had been sheltering in Pakistan’s tribal belt since 2002, when the U.S.-led intervention drove them from Afghanistan. Until then, the tribal belt had been outside the state’s writ, controlled by local tribal leaders. Like the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban are mainly of Pashtun ethnicity and adhere to the Deobandi school of Islam. Their links with their Afghan counterparts date back to the Deobandi movement’s emergence in the 1990s. At that time, the Afghans were refugees in Pakistan, having fled the Soviet invasion, and they studied with Pakistanis in Deobandi madrasas. The Pakistani Taliban then fought alongside the Afghans to help them seize power in Kabul for the first time in 1996. The ties would grow closer after the Afghan Taliban, having been ousted by the U.S., again escaped across the border. The Pakistani state gave the Afghan Taliban safe passage, but it was Islamist tribal factions in the frontier provinces that gave them sanctuary.

The inter-Taliban nexus became even more evident after 2016, when the Pakistani army intensified counter-insurgency efforts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Those operations largely dislodged the TTP from the Pakistani tribal belt, forcing many militants across the border into Afghanistan, where some fought alongside the Afghan Taliban to expel Western forces and topple former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s U.S.-backed government. As the Afghan Taliban began gaining ground in early 2021, they sprung hundreds of Pakistani Taliban, including key leaders, from the former government’s prisons. That August, after Kabul fell, Pakistani Taliban chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud renewed the group’s oath of allegiance to Afghan Taliban emir Hibatullah Akhundzada (successive TTP leaders had previously sworn fealty to Afghan Taliban leaders). Mehsud also reunited several TTP splinter groups and strengthened operational structures, including the central command in Afghanistan and shadow governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan’s Pashtun belt, headed by tribal factions such as the Mohmand group. Relations between the two Taliban groups have remained close despite the fact that the Pakistani state – the TTP’s sworn enemy – has historically been the Afghan Taliban’s biggest foreign supporter.

Authorities in Islamabad long failed to see the connections – what a Pakistani analyst called “the ideological bond” – between their TTP foes and their Afghan Taliban allies. The TTP began mounting cross-border attacks on Pakistani security forces before the Afghan Taliban came back to power. At that time, Pakistani officials blamed Ghani’s government, saying it was tolerating the insurgents’ presence (accusations Kabul denied). Islamabad also accused anti-Pakistani forces, notably Indian intelligence agencies, of backing the TTP.

Pakistani leaders ... welcomed the Afghan Taliban takeover in 2021, apparently believing that a friendly regime in Kabul would promote Pakistan’s security interests.

Top Pakistani leaders, including then-Prime Minister Imran Khan, welcomed the Afghan Taliban takeover in 2021, apparently believing that a friendly regime in Kabul would promote Pakistan’s security interests. Khan said the Taliban’s return had broken “the chains of slavery”. High-ranking military officers, including Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, then head of the formidable Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), hastened to Kabul to meet the new authorities, calling on them to either rein in the Pakistani Taliban or kick them out. Instead, the Afghan Taliban told Pakistan they would mediate in negotiations with the TTP’s leadership. In October, Khan confirmed that the military was holding talks with the TTP in Kabul “so that its members may surrender and reconcile in return for amnesty”.

Negotiations continued, mediated by the Afghan Taliban’s acting interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the faction perceived to be closest to Pakistan, even as the TTP kept staging cross-border attacks. The talks made little headway, as the TTP rejected Pakistan’s offer of amnesty, which required that they disband. The TTP delegation, led by Mehsud, would not back down on its own demands, either, though many of them were unacceptable to the Pakistani side. These included reversal of Islamabad’s May 2018 decision to merge the Federally Administered Tribal Areas – rugged borderlands that were previously under a special legal regime – into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has extended Pakistani state law to those areas. The militants want the Pakistani army to pull out of these border regions and the government to impose Islamic law in all Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan’s Pashtun belt. Lastly, they demand a blanket amnesty, as well as release of their detained commanders and fighters, while still refusing to lay down their arms.

The Pakistani high command, then headed by Qamar Javed Bajwa, backed by Khan, reportedly bowed to some of the TTP’s wishes, deeming them confidence-building measures to advance the negotiations. More than a hundred TTP prisoners, including two top leaders, were released from Pakistani jails. Authorities also allowed hundreds of armed Pakistani Taliban fighters to come home from Afghanistan. In return, Pakistan got a tenuous and short-lived ceasefire. First put in place in November 2021, it ended a month later, as the TTP stepped up attacks in a bid to pressure Pakistan into accepting its remaining demands. Nonetheless, with the Afghan Taliban still adamant that Pakistan resolve its differences with the TTP, the talks went on.

Insecurity spread in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over the summer of 2022, though the TTP had announced a unilateral “indefinite ceasefire” in June. Militants were much more visible in the province, setting up checkpoints, extorting fees from travellers, kidnapping police and army officers, and killing government officials as well as political and tribal leaders who spoke out against them. According to one estimate, by August, a year after the Afghan Taliban takeover, militant attacks in Pakistan had increased by 51 per cent, with more than 75 per cent of them taking place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The province’s police chief has since disclosed that 105 officers were killed in 151 separate incidents over the course of the year. Calling for action to tamp down resurgent militancy and violence, civil society activists and politicians led mass protests throughout the province – from Malakand in the deep north to tribal districts, including North and South Waziristan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan.

The top brass became increasingly convinced that the [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan] had little interest in a negotiated settlement.

The top brass became increasingly convinced that the TTP had little interest in a negotiated settlement. The first sign of their unease was the August transfer of Lieutenant General Hameed, who had moved from being ISI chief to being corps commander in Peshawar, to the Bahawalpur corps in southern Punjab. Until then, Hameed had remained the main interlocutor in the talks with the militants. In mid-October, with TTP attacks claiming the lives of scores of police officers and soldiers, the defence minister told a meeting of the National Security Committee, the country’s apex security body, that the talks “bore no concrete outcomes”.

On 28 November, a day before Asim Munir took over from Bajwa as chief of army staff, the TTP’s central command formally called off the ceasefire, which in any case had existed only in name. It insisted that it had taken this step because Pakistani forces had not halted their operations; the statement added, “now our retaliatory attacks will … start across the country”.

Security and Intelligence Lapses

The TTP has gone on a killing spree since January. Most attacks have taken place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan, where some Baloch militant groups have joined hands with the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan's security officials attribute the exponential rise in attacks to three interlinked factors: the Afghan Taliban’s alleged provision of sanctuary to the TTP; the Pakistani militants’ access to sophisticated arms left behind by NATO forces in Afghanistan; and concessions granted to the group over the last year and a half, in particular the choice to allowed hundreds of armed fighters to return to Pakistan. In early December 2022, the National Counter-Terrorism Authority informed parliament that the TTP had “gained considerable ground” during the negotiations. Its report added that the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan had given “impetus to TTP activities, with its [base] still intact in Afghanistan”.

Though scores of soldiers have been killed or injured in militant attacks, the police force, much weaker than the military, has become the TTP’s primary target. Some 300 police officers have lost their lives since September 2022, mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; on 17 February, the police chief said the province had witnessed 62 militant attacks in January alone. The province’s police force is lightly armed, poorly trained and too thinly deployed to take on the TTP. Police say the militants, by contrast, have acquired weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and thermal imaging devices, left behind in Afghanistan by departing Western forces.

A serious incident on 18 December 2022 exposed the holes in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police’s defences. On that day, Pakistani Taliban fighters broke out of prison in Bannu, a city in the province, capturing the police counter-terrorism department building, which is located inside a military cantonment. Taking several officers hostage, the militants first demanded “safe passage” to Afghanistan. They later asked to go to North or South Waziristan, districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, perhaps concerned their initial request might embarrass the Afghan Taliban, who were still denying they were hosting Pakistani militants. The siege ended with all 33 hostage-takers killed in a joint army-police operation, in which three security personnel also died. Given the magnitude of the breach, police should have been on guard at sensitive installations across the province and elsewhere.

On 30 January the suicide bombing in Peshawar again put the police’s weaknesses on display.

Yet on 30 January the suicide bombing in Peshawar again put the police’s weaknesses on display. Dressed in a police uniform, the attacker passed through several barricades ringing the compound, which houses the provincial police headquarters and counter-terrorism offices. The suicide bomber struck after joining the front rows of worshippers in the compound’s mosque, where hundreds of police officers were at prayer. The roof collapsed in the blast, injuring at least 200 people in addition to the 80 who were killed. The provincial police chief later admitted that intelligence and security failures had contributed to the attacker’s success.

Militants took advantage of security and intelligence lapses yet again on 17 February in Karachi, penetrating the heavily guarded compound on the city’s main thoroughfare. Police officers at the entrance could not fend off the three attackers, who were all wearing suicide jackets and armed with grenades and automatic weapons. The joint operation to retake the police headquarters, which included soldiers, paramilitary rangers and police, lasted over three hours, resulting in the death of four security personnel and one civilian; eighteen others were wounded. The operation ended with two of the attackers shot dead and the third detonating his suicide jacket on the building’s roof. The family of one attacker reportedly disclosed that he had gone to Afghanistan five months prior.

Government circles were deeply concerned by the public shows of police incompetence in Peshawar and Karachi. Lawmakers also raised pointed questions about the negotiations with the TTP, asking what good they had done. Following the two attacks, high-level civilian and military leaders seem to have realised that no amount of security sector reform, such as strengthening police and counter-terrorism capabilities, can stem the militant tide unless the Afghan Taliban also curb their Pakistani counterparts’ freedom of action.

Responding to Militancy

Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders have held several high-level meetings to discuss the wave of TTP attacks, attended by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, army chief General Asim Munir, ISI chief General Anjum Nadeem and key cabinet ministers, among others. These included the 3 February convening of the provincial Apex Committee in Peshawar, formed in 2015 to oversee counter-terrorism efforts after the Army Public School attack that killed 150, including 132 schoolchildren. On 24 February, the Apex Committee on National Security, which comprises the top civil and military leadership, also met in Islamabad. At both meetings, leaders reiterated commitments made at the National Security Committee’s 2 January gathering: Islamabad would show “zero tolerance” for terrorism, with “no mixed messages and no differentiation between good or bad terrorists”. The government also used both meetings to stress it had ended talks with the TTP. It aims to rout the insurgents instead. Operations are under way in both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, where the army and police claim to have killed or detained scores of TTP fighters.

The decision to abandon talks with the TTP accompanied a debate within and outside parliament about whom to hold culpable for shortsighted concessions made during these talks, such as allowing the hundreds of fighters to return from Afghanistan, and releasing many, including two senior commanders, from Pakistani prisons. On 1 February, the defence minister, referring to the military’s in camera briefings on the talks under Khan’s government, disclosed that lawmakers had only been informed of decisions already taken, without parliament endorsing them. The same day, Prime Minister Sharif asked: “Who let [the terrorists] return to the country?”, implying that Khan’s government had done so. Leaders of Khan’s party said the military, under the old chief Bajwa, had made the decision, but the ex-premier admitted that his government was on board. He shifted blame to his successor, however, accusing Sharif of failing “to deal with the resettlement issue”. “When the militants came, they were not rehabilitated or given any proper attention …, and no money was spent on them. We were afraid that if we did not pay attention to them, then terrorism would start in different places, which [is what] has happened”.

Former Prime Minister Khan also held the police responsible for intelligence and security gaps in failing to prevent attacks, such as in Peshawar and Karachi. In response, Sharif noted that Khan’s party has been running Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since 2013. It has failed, he said, to use the massive funds allocated by the central government to build the provincial police force’s capacity. All agree that, regardless of who is at fault, security measures have been inadequate to date. At February’s high-level security meetings in Peshawar and Islamabad, the civil and military leadership underscored the importance of strengthening civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Proposed steps include bolstering provincial counter-terrorism and intelligence institutions, and enhancing counter-terrorism coordination between federal, provincial and intra-provincial law enforcement bodies.

Enter the Afghan Taliban, Once Again

But cabinet ministers in Pakistan also now publicly say that the TTP threat will continue to grow so long as the group has safe havens in Afghanistan. In January, the National Security Committee issued an implicit warning to Kabul, saying “no country will be allowed to provide sanctuaries” for terrorists. It remains to be seen, however, if Islamabad intends to pressure the Afghan Taliban in earnest and, if so, how. Many decision-makers clearly think Islamabad must tread carefully in its dealings with Kabul’s new rulers. Speaking at the UN in mid-December, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, said: “I cannot wish the Taliban or Afghanistan away. They are a reality, and they are on my border”. Pakistan’s worst-case scenario is that Afghanistan descends once more into chaos out of the Taliban’s control. Such a crisis could have dire implications for Pakistan, for instance a massive influx of desperate Afghans seeking jobs and shelter. It would also benefit criminals, such as arms and drug traffickers, and heighten threats from jihadist groups operating in Afghanistan, such as the Islamic State’s regional franchise. In view of these considerations, Islamabad continues to call on world powers to prop up Afghanistan’s economy and even to strengthen the Afghan Taliban’s security apparatus. Speaking at the February Munich Security Conference, Bhutto-Zardari asked for international assistance in building professional security forces that would enable the Afghan Taliban, as he put it, to counter the “alphabet soup” of terrorist groups still in the country.

The Afghan Taliban’s concerns about their ties with Pakistan may explain the welter of claims and counter-claims following the Peshawar bombing. At first, Omar Mukarram Khorasani, a member of the TTP’s central shura, said the TTP had sent the suicide bomber to take revenge for the 7 August killing of a hardline senior commander in Afghanistan’s Paktia province. The head of the TTP’s Mohmand faction, Sarbakaf Mohmand, who is also its shadow governor for Balochistan’s Zhob province, separately claimed he had ordered the attack. The TTP leadership in Kabul, however, later disavowed responsibility. It seems unlikely that Mohmand, whose splinter group rejoined the TTP in 2020, would have acted without the shura’s approval, either in planning the bombing or claiming it, so it seems probable that the central command backtracked, possibly because the Afghan Taliban were concerned about the adverse impact of the lethal blast on their own relations with Islamabad.

It is clear that ties between Kabul and Islamabad are strained after the Peshawar and Karachi attacks.

Nonetheless, it is clear that ties between Kabul and Islamabad are strained after the Peshawar and Karachi attacks. Islamabad’s criticism of Kabul for giving the TTP safe haven has become more strident, as have calls on the Afghan Taliban to sever ties with the group. Along with ending talks with the militants, Pakistani policymakers have reportedly decided to share their concerns about the TTP directly with the Afghan Taliban’s top leaders, notably the emir, Akhundzada. Such talks are likely proceeding, but through back channels, far from the public eye.

Pakistan has also made use of public diplomacy, including through the high-level delegation to Kabul on 20 February – just after the Karachi attack. During the day-long visit, the delegation, which included the defence minister and ISI chief, met the Afghan Taliban’s deputy prime minister as well as their interior and foreign ministers. The talks, according to Pakistan’s foreign ministry, focused on “the growing threat of terrorism”, particularly from the TTP. The delegation challenged the Afghan Taliban’s denial that Pakistani militants are present on Afghan soil. A well-informed Pakistani journalist wrote that the delegation gave the Afghan Taliban authorities detailed information about TTP locations, including that of its top leaders. Upon returning, the defence minister told parliament that Kabul had agreed to rein in the Pakistani Taliban. If media reports are accurate, the Afghan Taliban agreed to disarm TTP fighters and relocate them from regions bordering Pakistan, but only if Islamabad bears the cost. Pakistan has since called on the Afghan Taliban to take “concrete action” against the TTP.

It is unlikely that the Afghan Taliban will respond on a scale that satisfies Pakistan. They have spent years telling diplomats from around the world that they will constrain any militant groups seeking to attack other countries from Afghan soil. But their leaders have pointedly refused to conduct military operations against such groups merely because a foreign intelligence agency has labelled them “terrorists”. The Taliban’s main security concern is the local branch of the Islamic State (the Islamic State Khorasan Province) – which they have repeatedly accused Pakistan of sheltering (though Pakistan has also suffered from its attacks). Afghan Taliban leaders also likely worry about how the rank and file would respond to efforts to crack down on the TTP. Since seizing power, many decisions the group has taken have been motivated by maintaining its internal cohesion, even at the cost of angering foreign powers. Further complicating the situation is the uncomfortable fact that aspects of the Taliban’s ideological stance vis-à-vis the Pakistani state mirror the TTP’s positions. Akhunzada has deemed Pakistan’s constitution to be un-Islamic, just like TTP chief Mehsud. After the Peshawar attack, the Pakistani interior minister warned that Pakistani forces might strike in Afghanistan if the TTP operations continued. The Afghan Taliban’s foreign minister responded by calling on Pakistan to put its “own house in order”.

For Islamabad, the option of cross-border strikes thus remains open. It already has conducted airstrikes on TTP leaders and bases in Afghan territory, in April 2022, though these were never publicly acknowledged. In the current circumstances, it could well perceive the benefits of such strikes as outweighing the risks of annoying an unreliable Afghan ally.

A dual strategy of mounting cross-border strikes and pinning the TTP down through military and police operations in Pakistan might not, however, be sufficient to dampen militancy. Many serving and retired senior police officials advocate instead for a rule-of-law approach, based on intelligence gathering and prosecution of militants in court. In a joint op-ed, two former police inspectors general recently noted, “countering terrorism is a law enforcement domain within the criminal justice system. Military operations and kinetic approaches are essentially last-resort measures in the overall battle against militancy”. Building the capacity of civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify potential threats and to address the security failures that enabled militants to penetrate heavily guarded and sensitive targets could at the very least forestall attacks such as those that have shaken Peshawar and Karachi.

This text, published on 29 March, was slightly edited for clarity on 3 April 2023.

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