Recently, the Pakistani army boasted that it had the Pakistani Taliban — also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — on the run and that they were in disarray. It was claimed that the punishing, year-long offensive had ousted Taliban insurgents from their most prized tribal sanctuaries. The movement’s various factions were riven by violent rivalries and attacks on Pakistan’s towns and cities had largely ceased because of this. But now all these claims are in doubt after four Taliban gunmen mounted a deadly attack on Bacha Khan University in the northwestern town of Charsadda, killing 20 people. The Taliban argued that they had targeted the university campus because it prepared students to join the government and army. No doubt, military campaigns against the TTP have deteriorated its fighting capabilities as its leadership is on the run. About 70 percent of the infrastructure in the tribal areas, which were once the strongholds of Taliban insurgents, has been dismantled. But certainly the TTP is not dead and their alliances with other militant groups are still alive and kicking. The Pakistani military leadership has claimed periodically that the TTP rump is now hiding in Afghanistan’s eastern and northeastern regions and has been calling for an Afghan campaign against them. But it is a matter of fact that still the TTP is the largest militant group in Pakistan and its recruitment is done with the help of tribal loyalties and local affiliations.
Certainly, the Pakistani Taliban are no longer the tightly unified force that they once were when the movement was commanded from the heartland of Waziristan in the tribal belt by swaggering, publicity-hungry commanders who could call on a seemingly limitless stream of suicide bombers to hit targets across Pakistan, including even the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. The current nominal leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, was a polarising figure within the militant movement even from the start. But since the military began clearing his sub-commanders and allies out of the North Waziristan tribal area, he appears to have even less authority over the Taliban’s factional leaders, many of them headstrong characters who alternate between cooperation and violent feuding. So, because of these military campaigns the TTP does not possess the capability now of running a parallel government like it did in Swat and South Waziristan once upon a time. But still it can target civilian soft targets and, by doing this, it tries to prove itself as being deadly and active. The real operational strengths of the Pakistani Taliban are its affiliates and support networks, which still exist inside Pakistan. Taliban supporters and sympathisers provide a base and facilitate the movements of fighters without which no attack can be planned and executed.
Till now, Pakistani authorities have failed to take action against sympathisers of the TTP. Now the Pakistani public is starting to question the success of the ongoing military operation. Moreover it can be argued that, in some senses, the military operations have strengthened the region’s fractious jihadist organisations by forcing them to put aside their differences and work together. For example the government’s commencement of the Zarb-e-Azb Operation in North Waziristan district and supplementary operations in other districts of the tribal areas, served to soften the TTP’s differences over the leadership and to bind these groups together against a common enemy, which is the Pakistani state. The government’s various operations have only been able to restrict the space for Taliban insurgents to operate in rather than deny it completely. There is also the fact that no senior militant leaders have yet been killed or arrested, making it is easier for these groups to bounce back and reorganise themselves once government pressure is removed. Moreover, the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network are also all weather friends of the TTP. The Pakistan army’s protection of the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban as ‘strategic assets’ has helped the TTP retain its sanctuary and its attack capabilities. The areas dominated by the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban have provided the TTP with strategic depth.
Whenever the Pakistani military has stepped up its offensive in the tribal areas, the TTP have found it convenient to move into Afghan Taliban controlled areas. There is substantial evidence that the Haqqani network has also helped the TTP survive the military onslaught, which, in any case, has been selective and hence ineffective. What Pakistan today faces in the TTP is a hybrid group, a mixture of virulent insurgency and terrorism. By considering the current situation it is high time that the Pakistani military take some other effective steps as well in addition to its ground campaigns against the TTP so that the aim of neutralising the TTP throughout the nation can be achieved in the fullest. The Pakistani authorities have to identify and break up local terrorist networks, which support the TTP, counter radical ideology through deradicalisation progammes for the youth and, more important, take adequate measures to address lawlessness and extreme poverty in the northwestern mountainous region, a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists.