By Dr Claude Rakisits
The four-month old military operation in North Waziristan – Operation Zarb-e-Azb – and the smaller, more recent one in the Khyber Agency – Operation Khyber-I – against the various militant groups holed up in those areas have been successful, but only in a limited way. While the military capability of the Tereek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella grouping for a large number of Pakistan-based militant organisations, has undoubtedly been degraded, many of the fighters have either fled across the border into Afghanistan, or they have found refuge in Pakistan’s urban centres, particularly in Karachi. So while in the short-term terrorism may have been held at bay, in the long-term Pakistan’s terrorism problem is far from being resolved.
According to official military sources, well over 1000 militants have been killed. And over a 100 tonnes of ammunition and explosives have been recovered. Of course, there is no independent source to confirm these figures. But what we can correctly assume is that apart from Mohammad Hassan, a senior TTP commander, none of the top commanders or militant leaders has been killed because had this happened their corpses would have been displayed by the military as war trophies.
But while none of the politically heavies has been captured or killed, the operations have undoubtedly disrupted the TTP’s network which it had established, especially in North Waziristan. As a result many of these fighters have had to flee across the border, where they have established safe havens. While this may be good news in the short-term, in that these terrorists have left Pakistani soil, in the long-term this is bad news for Pakistan in that the militants will have the opportunity to re-group and re-arm in order to cross back over into Pakistan in the future.
Among those who were able to flee across the border were the high-value commanders from the Haqqani Network and the Gul Bahadur group. They were able to do so because of the much publicised lead time that they were given that a major military operation was about to be launched. This will be bad news for the future stability of Afghanistan because they will have joined their brothers-in-arm to fight the Afghan security forces and the departing Western troops. This will not help an already fragile Afghanistan.
These military operations have also accelerated the fracturing of the TTP, a process which had already started following the replacement of their leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in November 2013. Divisions were also sharpened over the approach to take vis-à-vis the unsuccessful peace talks initiated in February 2014 by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. However, it was the selection of Maulana Fazlullah, a non-Mehsud, as successor to Hakimullah which caused the greatest resentment within the ranks of the TTP, particularly among the Mehsud. Given the military importance of the Mehsud tribe in the TTP, the Mehsud feel that one of their own should be leading the TTP. An additional factor causing further bitterness inside the TTP is the fact that Fazlullah is not living among his fighters but is hiding across the border in the Kunar province of Afghanistan.
As a result of these deep divisions, the TTP has fractured into a number of different components. The first big split was caused by Maulana Qasim Omar Khorasani, alias Abdul Wali, who was head of the TTP in Mohmand Agency. Khorasani publicly disagreed with Fazullah regarding the peace talks with the government. Accordingly, after having been expelled from the TTP, he established Ahrar-ul-Hind (Freedom of India) which eventually morphed into the Tehreek-e-Taliban Jamaatul Ahrar (TTPJA, Assembly of Freedom), reportedly taking with him over 50 percent of the TTP’s senior commanders. He firmly believes that Sharia law must be implemented throughout Pakistan. Even among his fellow terrorists, he is considered ruthless. He was responsible for ordering the execution of 23 Frontier Corps personnel, who had been held prisoner for the last three and half years, during the peace talks in February 2014. This terrorist act ended the talks once and for all.
The other big split is within the Mehsud tribe itself, with two factions vying for supremacy, often very violently. One is led by Sheriyar Mehsud, a loyalist of the late Hakimullah, who mainly leads the younger TTP members and is based in South Waziristan. The other faction is headed by Khan Said, alias Sajna, who used to be a close confidante of Khorasani and is principally in North Waziristan. Reportedly, he is interested in entering into peace talks with the Pakistan government.
Finally, there is the Punjabi Taliban, headed by Asmatullah Muawiya, which decided in September 2014 that it would abandon its armed struggle in Pakistan and no longer target the security forces and government representatives but would instead focus on promoting Sharia law. It would, however, continue its armed operations in Afghanistan. If this is indeed the case, the Punjabi Taliban’s withdrawal from the terrorism business will be a major victory for the government of Nawaz Sharif. This group has carried out many spectacular terrorist attacks in the past, including the 2009 assault on the Pakistan Army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi; the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009; and the 2011 raid on the naval airbase at Mehran.
IS and Taliban
Further weakening Fazullah’s precarious hold on what is left of the TTP is the recent decision by six leading TTP figures – Shahidullah Shahid, Hafiz Saeed Khan, Hafiz Daulat Khan, Maulana Gul Zaman, Mufti Hassan and Khalid Mansoor – to swear allegiance to the Islamic State (IS)(alias the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria alias the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). What this means in practical, military terms is difficult to assess today. However, what it does mean is that Al-Qaeda’s pull in Pakistan is weakening and that its level of influence has diminished under the leadership of Ayman Al Zawahri. His public stunt of creating a South Asia branch of Al-Qaeda did little to hide this. On the contrary, it confirmed its desperate search for relevance in the wake of IS’s meteoric rise in the world of terrorism. The decision by the leader of the Pakistan-based Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to also swear allegiance to IS in October 2014 was further confirmation of Al-Qaeda’s fast diminishing weight in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
So what do all the above developments mean in the battle against terrorism in Pakistan? In the short-term, it is on the whole good news for the government of Nawaz Sharif. The TTP is now more divided, which means that the different factions have to compete over limited resources, including human and financial. This means its capability has been diminished and therefore so has its threat. Moreover, if the government is able to cut a genuine peace deal with the Khan Said faction of the Mehsuds that would further diminish the TTP’s terrorist reach. However, it is important to note that a fractured TTP, with each faction acting independently, does complicate the military’s ability to destroy it, or for the government to enter into negotiations with the organization as a whole.
However, in the long-term, terrorism in Pakistan remains a genuine threat. As noted above, many of the TTP commanders and leaders and their fighters have crossed the border into Afghanistan where they have joined their fellow ideological travelers and established safe-havens. They will assist the Afghan Taliban pursue their goal of regaining power in Kabul. And given the fragility of the Afghan state and the Afghan Taliban’s recent military successes, such an outcome remains a distinct possibility.
Needless to say, a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be extremely bad news for Pakistan because Islamabad could expect the Afghan Taliban to assist its Pakistani counterparts to also seek power in Pakistan. In the meantime, the Pakistan Taliban hiding across the border will conduct operations back into Pakistan and progressively seep back into the tribal areas. As for the Taliban fighters who fled to the cities of Pakistan to join the thousands of militants already living there, expect them to conduct terrorist acts against innocent civilians and government and military targets. Urban terrorism may quite possibly rise, possibly becoming a much greater threat than what Pakistan has had to endure to date. All in all, despite some of the recent military successes, Pakistan has not yet been cleansed of the terrorist scourge.
Note: A version of this article also appeared in the Foreign Policy Magazine and Defense Journal, Pakistan.