The Afghan Taliban-supported militant group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is posing a severe challenge to the new Pakistan Army chief, General Asim Munir.
Failure to tackle the militant group which has expanded its influence in the border areas of Pakistan in the recent months has created a peculiar dilemma for the army and its new chief. His challenge is not only to bring along the weak coalition government led by Shehbaz Sharif but also to convince the Afghan Taliban in finding a way to deal with an increasingly recalcitrant TTP leadership.
There is little public support for an open, military operation against TTP elements, forcing the army to rely more on intelligence-based operations (IBOs) which take more resources and produce less outcomes. The decision to opt for IBO was taken at the Corps Commanders’ conference in February this year. The General is too new in the saddle for an open, hardcore military operation within Pakistan at a time when the elections are imminent and the country is teetering on the edge of an economic precipice.
Making the situation more complicated was the TTP’s decision to call off the ceasefire as Munir took over from General Javed Bajwa in November end. The group threatened to carry out attacks across Pakistan. Since then, the militant group was responsible for over 150 attacks, including the Peshawar mosque attack which took more than 100 lives. The attacks were unprecedented and challenged the army leadership struggling to bring in a semblance of unity and pride back among the rank and file.
The new chief carries the baggage of the past occupant of GHQ Rawalpindi-General Bajwa who spent more time in politicking than protecting Pakistan’s critical interests along the Durand Line. Failed talks with militant groups have angered the people of the affected region who blame the army, and the federal government, for going soft on the militant groups. Given the army’s continuous propensity to open a dialogue with the militant group and its patron, Afghan Taliban, there is widespread scepticism of the army’s commitment to root out TTP from the tribal areas. Many believe that the problem was a creation of the army to deflect public attention from its role in dragging the country down.
When TTP began to move into settled areas in Pakistan early last year, residents sought the army’s help in vain. With the army battling its political battles, the militant group expanded fast and people came out into the streets as anger against the federal government’s neglect of the threat boiled up. The army had little interest in stemming the tide of militancy in the tribal areas and dismissed public outcry. The DG, ISI, was more keen on finding a way to settle TTP militants in the area or to negotiate with them.The area was under TTP terror till 2019 when the army last time pushed the militants away through military offensive.
With former Army chief General Javed Bajwa and his ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, more interested in basking in the glory of bringing the Afghan Taliban to Kabul, militant groups like TTP enjoyed freedom to regroup, rearm, realign and return to their traditional stronghold in Pakistan–the tribal areas bordering the Durand Line. The group had access to weapons left behind by the US-led western forces in Afghanistan. Recruits were easy to come by and so was money from smuggling, kidnapping for ransom and extortion.The group was a key ally of the Afghan Taliban in their military victory and therefore enjoyed protection when Pakistan began to seek first negotiation, then control and finally, now, desperately seeking a strong deterrent action against them.
Many believe that the army allowed the group to gain traction as part of its strategy to seek out the US after the Afghan defeat. The alacrity with which first Bajwa and then Munir reciprocated the US overtures showed how it was part of a calculated strategy, given the military, political and economic crises the country was getting drawn into. Now the US has made TTP a global problem and in the recently concluded counter-terrorism dialogue with Pakistan more than indicated the possibility of matching the funding of counter-terrorism campaigns of the past, a fairly lucrative business for the Generals.
The problem with this camaraderie with Washington is the Afghan Taliban’s deep suspicion. The Taliban believes that Pakistan could ditch them for US interests and hence wants to keep TTP as a strategic tool to prevent such a possibility.The killing of al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, by a US drone attack, has strengthened the Taliban fears of Pakistan’s deceit. The attack could not have been possible without Pakistan’s direct or indirect assistance.
The TTP, on its part, is also playing a clever game. The Afghan Taliban comprises many groups, chiefly the Haqqani group and the Kandahar group, the two jockeying for total control of Afghanistan. The TTP works on these divisions to its advantage, switching allegiance to protect its interests.
The TTP has developed a significant intelligence network among the large Pashtun population in Sindh, Islamabad and other areas across Pakistan, a factor which has made it difficult for the army to carry out effective counter operations. At present, the militant group is focusing to strengthen its hold in north-south Waziristan where the Pakistan Army is concentrating its intelligence-based operations. The army is beefing up its presence in the areas by building a permanent cantonment stationing brigade-size force in North and South Waziristan. New wings of Frontier constabulary are being raised to guard the inter-provincial border.
The group on the other hand is negotiating with local tribal leaders to put pressure on Pakistan to accept its demand for reversal of the merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. With the army-backed Haqqani group distancing from the group, TTP is roping former allies like Hafiz Gul Bahadur and late Maulvi Nasir’s group. The army too is roping in tribal leaders and trying to break disgruntled factions within TTP. Various intelligence operations are in progress to break the intelligence network of TTP.
Within three months of his tenure, General Asim Munir is finding out why the army should remain free of politics to deal with the army’s core objectives but cannot, given the power it draws from politics.