A quiet and persistent word is circulating in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal districts along the Afghan border: the Taliban are returning.
The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has encouraged Pakistan’s own Taliban organization, which has fought a deadly campaign against the Islamabad government in the past.
They appear to be planning to reclaim control of the tribal areas, which they lost nearly seven years ago in a massive military campaign by Pakistan. The Taliban in Pakistan are already expanding their authority. Local contractors claim that the Taliban impose surcharges on every contract and that those who refuse to pay them are killed.
In early September, for example, a contractor called Noor Islam Dawar constructed a tiny canal near the Afghan border at Mir Ali. It didn’t have a value of more than $5,000. Despite this, the Taliban came knocking, wanting their $1,100 part. According to family and local activists, Dawar had nothing to give and asked for their forgiveness. He was shot and killed by unknown assailants a week later. His family holds the Taliban responsible.
Though they share much of the same extreme philosophy and are allies, Pakistan’s Taliban, known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban or TTP, is a distinct group from Afghanistan’s Taliban. The TTP gained to prominence in the early 2000s, launching a bombing and other assault campaign with the goal of overthrowing Pakistan’s government and gaining control of numerous tribal regions. The military crackdown in the 2010s was successful in suppressing it.
However, even before the Afghan Taliban gained control of Kabul on August 15, the TTP began regrouping in safe havens throughout Afghanistan.
“The Afghan Taliban’s astounding victory over the United States of America has encouraged the Pakistani Taliban…
They now appear to feel that they, too, can conduct a successful jihad against Pakistan’s ‘infidel’ state, and have reverted to insurgency mode,” said Brian Glyn Williams, an Islamic history professor at the University of Massachusetts and an expert on jihad movements.
In recent months, the TTP has increased its attacks. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies in Islamabad, more than 300 Pakistanis have been murdered in terrorist assaults since January, including 144 military personnel.
The events in Afghanistan have also energised Pakistan’s numerous extreme religious groups, according to Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad.
These groups publicly condemn minority Shiite Muslims as heretics, and on occasion, hundreds of people take to the streets to defend their strict interpretation of Islam. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, for example, has a sole goal: to preserve a contentious blasphemy legislation. The legislation has been utilized against minorities and opponents, and it has the potential to inspire crowds to murder just because someone is accused of offending Islam.
Pakistani society, already roiled by rising religiosity, is in danger of becoming Taliban-run Afghanistan, according to Rana.
According to a Gallup Pakistan poll issued last week, 55 percent of Pakistanis want a “Islamic government” like the Taliban’s in Afghanistan. Soon after the Taliban took control of Kabul, Gallup polled 2,170 Pakistanis.
Pakistan has resisted unilateral recognition of Afghanistan’s all-Taliban government, but has pushed for international engagement with the new leadership. It has asked the US to transfer funding to the Afghan government, as well as pushing the Taliban to include minorities and non-Talibans into their ranks.
Pakistan’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban has long been a cause of concern in the United States, with Republican senators proposing legislation to penalize Islamabad for supposedly conspiring against the United States to bring the Taliban to power. Pakistan’s authorities have reacted angrily to the accusation, claiming that they were requested to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table with the US, which finally resulted to an accord opening the path for America’s final exit.
Pakistan’s links to numerous Afghan Taliban date back to the 1980s, when Pakistan served as the staging area for a US-backed counter-insurgency campaign against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The Haqqani organization, which is perhaps Afghanistan’s most powerful Taliban branch, has a long history with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI.
According to Asfandyar Mir, a prominent scholar at the US Institute of Peace, Pakistan has turned to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister in Afghanistan’s new Taliban administration, for assistance in initiating negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban.
Some TTP officials in North Waziristan, a mountainous region previously held by the organisation, are willing to engage. However, the more violent factions, commanded by Noor Wali Mehsud, are adamantly opposed to negotiations. According to Mir, Mehsud’s Taliban desire control over South Waziristan.
It’s unclear if Haqqani will be able to persuade Mehsud to come to the table, or whether Afghanistan’s new authorities are willing to cut relations with Pakistan’s Taliban.
According to two Pakistani individuals aware with the demands, the TTP is seeking sovereignty over portions of the tribal regions and governance by its stringent interpretation of Islamic Shariah law in those areas, as well as the right to keep their weapons, in an attempt to reach an agreement with Islamabad. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because they are not permitted to speak to the media and fear punishment.
Pakistan is beginning negotiations with the Taliban to stop the growing attacks on its military, according to Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in the United States, but he cautioned that “the government is opening Pandora’s box.”
“The TTP will not be happy with governing a tiny part of Pakistan; it will surely seek more,” Roggio said. “The TTP aims to control Pakistan, much as the Afghan Taliban intended to rule Afghanistan.”