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Noor Wali Mehsud and the resurgence of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

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A new wave of terrorism is gripping Pakistan after the successful operation Zarb-e-Azab in 2014. This renewed terrorism is spearheaded by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. On the dawn of March 31, 2022, terrorists belonging to proscribed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacked Frontier Constabulary (FC) Qila Tank. The attack resulted in the martyrdom of six personnel. On the very same day clashes took place between security forces and terrorists in the Makin area of South Waziristan. Two soldiers including an army Captain were martyred in this clash. These clashes are part of a long list of attacks by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

In 2019 total attacks by TTP were only 37 whereas the number was 149 in 2020. A fourfold increase in one year. In the year 2021, according to the data collected by PIPS these attacks number 207. The graph is on the surge with 2022 so far being the deadliest. According to the Pakistani military, 97 Pakistani troops and officers were killed in “terrorist assaults” between January and March of this year. The increasing number of attacks raises concerning questions about the resurgence of terrorism. It is a need for time to dissect the underlying roots of this surge in terrorism.

The resurgence of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is owed to a myriad of reasons

Change in leadership is one of the factors in the resurgence of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Noor Wali Mehsud became the fourth Chief of TTP after the killing of Mullah Fazlullah in June 2018. After the appointment of Noor Wali Mehsud, the leadership of TTP returned to the Mehsud tribe, as the first two TTP chiefs Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud were also Mehsud. Noor Wali Mehsud has been part of TTP since its creation. He had been part of the Taliban movement in the 1990s and fought with the insurgent movement. Noor Wali is regarded as the most intellectual of the TTP leaders so far.

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He has in fact written a book titled, “The Mehsud Revolution in South Waziristan: From British Raj to Oppressive America”. The ascendency of Noor Wali Mehsud to power has led to the return of several splinter groups back into the fold of TTP. The strength of TTP had been dwindling under Mullah Fazlullah. However, Noor Wali has been successful in merging different splinter groups back into the fold of TTP and rejuvenating its strength. What was Noor Wali’s secret? He acknowledged that the TTP could not function as a centralized organization and that attempts by the leadership to exert greater control and make central decisions had been one of the primary causes of the group’s breakup.

As a result, Noor Wali took a more ‘federal’ approach to reconstructing the TTP, enabling the different sub-leaders to retain a great deal of authority while remaining under the TTP umbrella. The merger of these splinter groups is also a major reason for TTP resurgence.

The takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan is also a crucial factor in the resurgence of TTP. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban took over power in August 2021. The depth of the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and TTP became evident after the takeover by the former. Taliban authorities freed key TTP officials and a significant number of fighters held by the former Afghan government almost immediately. The Taliban administration also appears to have granted de facto political refuge and freedom of movement to the TTP’s top leadership within Afghanistan, from whence the organization is coordinating its violent campaign in Pakistan.

Also, in an interview with CNN, Noor Wali Mehsud emphasized that TTP has a good relationship with the Afghan Taliban and they are hopeful that their victories in Afghanistan will be beneficial for them.  Also during the war on terror US drones were helpful in the elimination of TTP leadership in Afghanistan. With the US withdrawal from the region, the threat of US drones has become bleak.

Another implication of the change in leadership of TTP is its change in tactics

They are moving away from attacking both civilian and military targets to focusing attacks on military targets only. Also, the recent terrorist attacks are limited more to the tribal regions only and are an attempt to undo the gains of the Pakistan Army after operation Zarb-e-Azab. This is in keeping with the group’s ideology shift in 2018, in which they stated their focus would be on the Pakistani military and Intelligence rather than civilians. The resurgence of TTP is also causing an environment of fear in Pakistan which was very much diminished after operation Zarb-e-Azab.

Pakistan has to make a tough decision once again to rein in the monster of terrorism. Pakistan has displayed its ability in combating terrorism before and is taking action against this resurgent TTP. However, an increasing number of attacks show that Pakistan may have to take difficult steps. If the Afghan Taliban fail to take action against TTP then Pakistan has to take stringent measures.

Another military operation in border areas can be an option for Pakistan. Also, Pakistan has the ability to inflict damages on TTP’s safe havens in Afghanistan and this option can also be utilized. Another option for Pakistan is to take out Noor Wali Mehsud as happened with previous TTP chiefs. Noor Wali Mehsud is the architect of the rejuvenated TTP and taking him out may well be a huge blow to the movement.

The writer works as Research Officer at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CISS), Islamabad.