By Faran Jeffery: On November 28, in a letter issued by its defense chief Mufti Muzahim, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group that has been waging war against the Pakistani state for over a decade now, officially announced an end of the ceasefire with Pakistan. In its statement, TTP accused the Pakistani state of not adhering to the ceasefire and pointed towards the various security operations by Pakistani security forces, particularly a recent operation in Lakki Marwat area of the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, as the main reason for ending the ceasefire.
On November 9, 2021, TTP and the Pakistani state announced a one-month ceasefire, during which TTP cells in Afghanistan and Pakistan regrouped, while Pakistan reportedly released hundreds of TTP militants as part of the understanding with TTP. This ceasefire later collapsed with TTP resuming its attacks and the then-Pakistani Interior Minister saying, “TTP’s demands were not possible for us to accept, we didn’t make any contact with TTP after the collapse of ceasefire, if TTP wants to hold talks within the constitutional boundaries then great, if TTP fights then we will fight too.” On November 10, 2021, a day after the end of one-month ceasefire, TTP released an interview of its chief Noor Wali Mehsud, where he said that there has been no progress in talks with the Pakistani state.
On April 29, 2022, TTP released a statement from its chief Noor Wali Mehsud announcing an 11-day ceasefire with the state of Pakistan ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr. Just before this announcement, TTP released an infographic on its attacks in the month of April, which noted a total of 54 attacks.
Around the first week of May, TTP announced intensifying operations against Pakistan in case the ceasefire collapsed, but in a follow-up statement, TTP once again extended the ceasefire for 5 more days. Then on May 18, TTP released another statement extending the ceasefire to May 30. Then on May 31, it was announced by both TTP and the Pakistani government that the ceasefire has been extended indefinitely. Around the end of August 2022, the TTP indicated that it will be carrying out “defensive attacks” against Pakistani police and security forces in response to what it claimed were continued counter-terrorism operations being carried out during the ceasefire. Following this announcement of “defensive attacks”, TTP once again started claiming attacks, sometimes claiming multiple attacks in a day. These “defensive attacks” were largely restricted to KP province and continued until November 28, when the TTP officially announced an end of the ceasefire and ordered its militants to begin nationwide operations.
It is pertinent to note here that even when TTP was not claiming any attacks itself – which lasted from the Eid-ul-Fitr ceasefire of 2022 to TTP’s announcement of “defensive attacks” – the attacks against Pakistani security forces continued on the ground. Several of these attacks remain unclaimed, while others were claimed by Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group as well as some other smaller groups, which suddenly became active during this period. Two such notable smaller groups worth mentioning here are Lashkar-e-Khurasan and Ittehad Musallah Islami Mujahideen (IMIM or IMAM) group. The IMAM group used to operate back in 2013 as Ansar-ul-Mujahideen and it still has the same spokesperson it seems, although it has now changed its flag and name and started claiming attacks in KP province during the TTP ceasefire period. Lashkar-e-Khurasan had been dormant for a long time and hadn’t claimed any major attacks until it suddenly became active during the ceasefire period.
It is worth noting here that while all three groups – Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group, Lashkar-e-Khurasan, IMAM group – are not part of the TTP umbrella, all three of them maintain close ties with TTP commanders and leaders. They not only have the same ideology, objectives and targets as the TTP and maintain close contact with the larger jihadi umbrella, but they also have family and tribal ties with TTP members.
During the ceasefire period, when the attacks were being claimed by these smaller militant groups, most analysts and journalists in Pakistan tried to paint a narrative that these groups have no relation with the TTP and that TTP is strictly adhering to the ceasefire. During this time, I was perhaps the only analyst who repeatedly addressed the problem with this theory by pointing out that these smaller groups are acting as TTP’s B-Team. With the help of these groups, TTP was able to maintain deniability during the ceasefire period while the attacks continued on the ground. The TTP used this strategy to stay on good terms with the Afghan Taliban – and the Haqqani Network in particular – who had initially played the role of a mediator in bringing about the ceasefire. During this ceasefire period, when I talked to some Afghan Taliban sources about the attacks being claimed by smaller militant groups, I was told that the Afghan Taliban only mediated a ceasefire between TTP and Pakistan, and that the Taliban were not responsible for other militant groups operating in Pakistan, and that it is Pakistan’s internal issue which it must resolve on its own. But while TTP and its B-Team were carrying out attacks, the Pakistani state and its mouthpieces in the Pakistani media kept on downplaying the threat and in some cases even made defensive arguments to provide cover to TTP. It was suggested that “Pakistan’s enemies” don’t want peace and are therefore exaggerating the TTP threat. To peddle this narrative, some local journalists were hired by the state to steer the narrative, while at the same time, social media teams running fake propaganda accounts were also set up to target anyone who was highlighting the growing TTP threat in Swat and elsewhere in KP province. This happened while locals in Swat were taking out massive protests against growing militancy in their area. In most cases, these protests were not given mass coverage by the local mainstream TV media and instead, the coverage was largely restricted to social media.
Now that the TTP has officially ended the ceasefire and called for nationwide attacks, it is expected to carry out attacks outside of KP province. Two key high risk areas to watch will be Balochistan and Karachi; TTP has maintained cells and networks in both of these locations outside of KP province and there has been significant increase in TTP’s extortion and other activities in Karachi in the past few months.
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As if to establish its word, on November 30, the TTP carried out a suicide bombing in Quetta, Balochistan, targeting a police convoy, which resulted in the complete destruction of at least one police truck. According to local sources, multiple people, including policemen, were killed while over 20 people were wounded. The attack has been officially claimed by the TTP in a statement where it also claimed that this new series of attacks will be carried out in the memory of Omar Khalid Khurasani, who was killed in a mysterious attack in Barmal, Paktika, Afghanistan in early August during the ceasefire period. The TTP blamed the Pakistani state for his death.
The TTP has ended the ceasefire at a time when Pakistan has appointed its new army chief, General Asim Munir Ahmed, who is expected to distance his institution from the Bajwa doctrine, which also saw the policy of peace talks and a ceasefire with the TTP, resulting in the reemergence of TTP in Pakistan’s tribal areas. This is a time of political instability in Pakistan and the federal government will likely find it tricky to navigate through the mess left behind by the outgoing leadership of the military establishment. It is also worth noting that while the TTP has ended its ceasefire only now, its other activities like extortion and kidnapping continued unabated in areas like Swat, Waziristan, etc even during the ceasefire period, and these activities are only expected to increase in the coming days. TTP has also gotten its hands on some new foreign weapons and equipment – including night vision equipment – from Afghanistan, following last year’s Taliban takeover. In some cases, the Taliban gifted armored vehicles and other equipment to the TTP as its fair share of participating alongside the Taliban in the war against foreign forces in Afghanistan.
TTP’s announcement ending the ceasefire also came at a time when a Pakistani delegation, led by the State Minister of Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, had just landed in Kabul to hold meetings with the Afghan Taliban leaders. While Pakistani government statements claimed that the agenda included issues like trade, refugees, visa regime, etc, it is understood that the issue of cross-border terrorism and the TTP was also something that the Pakistani delegation was looking to discuss with the Afghan Taliban. TTP has not only found refuge in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but has also carried out dozens of cross-border attacks from Afghanistan since last year’s Taliban takeover, while at the same time there have also been occasions when TTP and Taliban fighters carried out joint attacks against Pakistani border forces. It is unlikely that TTP would have ended the ceasefire without taking some Afghan Taliban leaders into confidence.
Earlier in November, an Afghan Taliban fighter walked into a Pakistani border outpost and opened fire on Pakistani soldiers inside, killing and wounding multiple personnel. He then walked back into Afghanistan. In response, Pakistan closed the Chaman border and called on the Taliban to hand over the attack. Instead of handing over the attacker, Taliban accounts on social media circulated a video confession of the attacker where he not only confesses his actions but also calls on Pushtuns in Pakistan to rise up and wage jihad against the Pakistani state. Later, some Pakistani journalists and Afghan media were fed the fake news that Taliban had handed over the attacker to Pakistan and, as a result, Pakistan is reopening its border with Afghanistan. However, an investigation revealed that the attacker was not handed over and remains with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
It is also worth pointing out that Pakistan is expected to head into a general election next year, and if the Pakistani state doesn’t act quickly against the TTP, the country will likely see yet another bloody election cycle where political parties can be targeted by the militants once again.
A scathing November 30 editorial by Pakistan’s English language paper Dawn criticised the state’s approach towards dealing with the TTP, saying, “Over the last few months, however, the state has been dishing out spin rather than facts to an increasingly uneasy public. As recently as September, the authorities were insisting that the threat of a militancy redux was an exaggeration.”
Pakistan will soon find out that TTP has used the ceasefire period not just to regroup and rearm itself but also to re-establish its networks well beyond the KP province. The warnings of those of us who were principally against any peace talks with the TTP are unfortunately turning out to be true. Pakistan is headed towards more turmoil.
(Faran Jeffery is the Deputy Director of Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism (ITCT), a UK-based Counter Islamist Terrorism think tank)