Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan merger with splinter groups 'bad news' for Pakistan
While reconciliation efforts between the government and the Taliban are still underway in Afghanistan, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has announced a reunification with Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Hizbul Ahrar - a move that experts warn could be the beginning of increasingly hostile activities against Pakistan.
The TTP is a banned Pakistani militant organization that draws its ideological views from al-Qaida. The group was founded in 2007 in North Waziristan of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. With alleged bases in both Kunar and Nangarhar provinces in eastern Afghanistan, it has been able to sustain a militant presence along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“The merger is bad news for Pakistan,” Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia expert and fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, told VOA.
“In the short term, the TTP is likely to improve its presence in Pakistan's tribal regions and expand its extortion activity, which has picked up in the last few months. Over the medium term, it is possible the TTP will try to create a buffer zone on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan to, once again, declare a state of the Pakistani Taliban, which hosts Islamist foreign fighters,” Mir said.
Mir said in the coming months, the TTP will likely increase its attacks against Pakistani government targets in the tribal areas of the border. He said the group’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban means it can use Afghan territory to maintain pressure on the Pakistani government.
The United States in 2010 designated the TTP a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).
The group has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly terrorist attacks, including the 2009 attack on a U.S. military base in Khost province in Afghanistan; the 2012 murder attempt on Malala Yousafzai in Swat; and the 2014 Army Public School attack in Peshawar that killed 141 people, including 132 children.
Pakistan has accused the TTP of involvement in the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but the group denied the allegations.
“Any time you have mergers of these kinds of groups, it can lead to increased strength and operations. So, I’m sure Pakistan is watching these developments with concern,” said Jonathan Schroden, an expert on Afghanistan and director for CNA's Center for Stability and Development.
History of infighting
It remains uncertain if the merger can hold, given the history of infighting between the Pakistani militants, according to Schroden.
Internal rifts within the TTP leadership have resulted in deadly clashes between the group’s various factions in the past. JuA left the TTP in August 2014. Hizbul Ahrar split from JuA in 2017.
Some experts say the Pakistani militants now see a renewed opportunity to ignore their disputes and rebuild strength, due to the US-Taliban peace agreement that took place in February in Doha.
The militants are trying to mitigate the impact of the deal, particularly as the Taliban and the Afghan government prepare for peace talks, according to the experts.
“If the peace accord is achieved, the TTP will naturally benefit from their allegiance to the Taliban (in Afghanistan),” said Nazi Mohmand, a retired Pakistani brigadier and military analyst for the Institute Policy Studies in Islamabad, told VOA.
TTP support accusations
Mohmand said the TTP’s announcement was deliberate and well-timed, adding, “If they have a stance and a unified command with one figurehead under one umbrella group, they will be able to gain on some political fronts or receive some sort of concession in the future by being given space on the negotiation table, if a reconciliation takes place between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”
Pakistani officials have repeatedly accused Afghanistan of providing shelter to the TTP in Afghan border areas. The claim has been rejected by Afghan officials, who often blame the Pakistani military of supporting the Afghan Taliban and providing them havens and sanctuaries.
Atiqullah Amarkhil, a military analyst and retired Afghan army general, told VOA that TTP’s presence, and its potential alignment with other militant groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida, poses an equal threat to Afghanistan.
While the TTP could enjoy some support from both sides of the border, its militant activities have mainly focused on the Pakistani government and military, according to Seth G. Jones, a senior adviser of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“The TTP is an organization that can go in different directions, so there may very well be some support from the government of Afghanistan, and there may well be some support … from some elements in Pakistan,” Jones told VOA.
A United Nations Security Council report in May 2020 estimated that the TTP has 500 fighters in Kunar and about 180 in Nangarhar, while the total number of Pakistani nationals fighting with terrorist groups in Afghanistan may be as high as 6,500.