The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is back in news again. On one end the taliban government in Afghanistan continues to shelter it, while the government in Islamabad plans armed strikes against it. Pakistans Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has held two back to back National Security Committee (NSC) meetings, along with three chiefs of the armed forces and other top government officials to devise an operational plan against TTP and its affiliates. The official statement issued at the end of the NSC meeting said: “Pakistan’s security is uncompromisable, and the full writ of the state will be maintained on every inch of the (sic) Pakistan’s territory.” While previous military operations against TTP were mostly limited to tribal districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, it appears Pakistan is now planning to conduct cross border strikes in Afghanistan.
In an interview to a news channel on December 30, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah had said that Pakistan may target TTP militants in Afghanistan if authorities in Kabul did not take any action against them. Additionally, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told Geo News that “Afghanistan’s soil continued to be used against Pakistan, despite an agreement.”These provocative statements from Pakistan have deepened tensions with the Afghan Taliban. In response, the Afghan National Defense Ministry issued a statement on January 1, saying that it “views the Sanaullah’s statement about the presence of TTP in Afghanistan and possible attack as provocative and baseless.”More importantly, the statement further said that Afghanistan was “ready to defend its territorial integrity and independence” and knew how to defend the country.
Through these provocative statements and recent National Security Committee meetings, Pakistani authorities are generating a domestic consensus on the terrorism issue. More importantly, Islamabad is also getting assurances from some foreign countries, especially the United States, in its fight against TTP. On January 3, the US State Department said in a statement that it supported Pakistan’s right to “defend itself from terrorism” and said that Pakistani people have “suffered tremendously” from terror attacks. This is one of many statements issued recently in support of Pakistan. In a possible ‘quid pro quo’ arrangement for helping the US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, Washington could provide military support to Pakistan in its fight against TTP. All these developments have put the Afghan Taliban in a difficult situation. All this follows the US’s assassination of Ayaman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, in Kabul, while he was under the protection of the Haqqani’s who control the Taliban government in Kabul.
For over two decades, Pakistan’s military establishment willingly supported the Taliban to forcefully oust the foreign troops from Afghanistan. Ironically, Islamabad is now seeking support from the West to conduct a military offensive against TTP in its tribal districts, also jeopardizing the security stability in eastern provinces of Afghanistan. A military operation against TTP will put pressure on the Taliban government, which is desperately seeking the international recognition since it took over Kabul in August 2021. However, it is also possible that Pakistan’s military threats may further unite the Taliban and other Afghan political leaders. On January 3, former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai called upon Islamabad to stop issuing threats and carry out “deep review” of its policies related to the neighboring country, saying that prevailing “insecurity” in Pakistan is the result of policies of its government. Similarly, several Afghan citizens have shown solidarity with the Taliban government and warned Pakistan to not tinker with Afghanistan’s territorial sovereignty.
As the new Army chief, General Syed Asim Munir sees an opportunity to project his power through a new military operation in the country. TTP and its affiliated groups have conducted 367 attacks in 2022 in different parts of Pakistan, but mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. However, their operations are now expanding to Punjab and Islamabad. In a recent statement, TTP has issued an explicit warning to ruling parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan’s Peoples Party, of attack against their leadership for “announcing war against the outfit to please America.” More importantly, on December 30, TTP announced its new appointments dividing the outfit into various “ministries” such as Defense, Judiciary, Information, Political affairs, Economic Affairs, Education, a fatwa issuing authority, Intelligence and a department for construction.
It is noteworthy that TTP is simply using the Afghan Taliban strategy to run a parallel/shadow government in Pashtun-dominated tribal areas of Pakistan. This development has created more insecurities in Islamabad, which failed to convince TTP for a ‘peace’ deal despite pressure from the Taliban. In addition, Baloch rebel groups have also stepped up their activities and formalized a nexus with the TTP in Balochistan. Lastly, recent incidents at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police’s Counter- Terrorism Department interrogation centre in Bannu and the suicide bombing attempt in Islamabad crossed all red-lines of Islamabad, forcing to call a military operation. However, growing economic uncertainty and persisting political instability are causing roadblocks for the military’s planning for an ‘extended’ offensive operation against terror groups. PM Shehbaz Sharif said in a statement that the war against terrorism in Pakistan would be led by “federal and provincial governments as per National Action Plan in accordance with the National Internal Security Policy with people-centric socio-economic development” as a priority while the Armed Forces will provide resolute deterrence and secure conducive and enabling environment. A new military operation will put severe burden on Pakistan’s economy.