Ever since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021, Pakistan has been battling hard against the rise in terrorist attacks from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). For decades, the Pakistani security establishment strived for ‘strategic depth’ in neighbouring Afghanistan, apparently with the purpose of cultivating a friendly government in Kabul which would help Islamabad to limit New Delhi’s influence besides mitigating Pashtun nationalism and its irredentist claims. Closely intertwined with this idea remained a strategy in the Pakistan army that the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban would help Pakistan to control the TTP from perpetrating its attacks within Pakistan. However, contrary to Islamabad’s expectations, there has been a significant rise in terrorist attacks by the TTP and its affiliates inside Pakistan. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) alone, there were 665 attacks including 15 suicide bomb attacks.1 This does not remain restricted to KP and Balochistan provinces and recently, the TTP have also managed to expand their terrorist activities in the largest province of Punjab.2
The return to power of the Taliban regime has strengthened the resolve among the TTP militant groups, who are seeking to establish Sharia in the tribal areas of Pakistan on the pattern of the Afghan Taliban. Following the sudden spike in terrorist activities, Islamabad firstly tried to convey to the Taliban that it should put a stop on the terrorist activities of the TTP groups and handover involved terrorists to Pakistan. Islamabad believes that the Taliban regime is providing safe haven to the TTP militants. Interestingly, the Taliban regime did not buy Pakistan’s claims and rather asked Pakistan to resolve its internal security problems on its own.
Authorities in Pakistan then brought in prominent religious clerics to further persuade the Taliban regime in this regard. One of them was Mufti Muhammad Taqi Uthmani (born 1943), a former judge of the Central Shariah Court of Pakistan from 1980 to 1982 and the Shariah Appeal Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan from 1982 to 2002, . In an attempt to dissuade the TTP from attacking Pakistan, Taqi Uthmani issued a religious decree/fatwa that “any armed activity against the state of Pakistan is a rebellion and forbidden according to Sharia”.3 While the Taliban regime remains adamant about not accepting Islamabad’s claims, they maintain that Pakistan should put its own house in order rather than blaming the Taliban. While Islamabad has remained unsuccessful in persuading the Taliban regime about its security concerns, the caretaker government in Pakistan decided to declare the majority of Afghan migrants living in Pakistan as ‘illegal aliens’, and ordered their early and swift deportation. For deporting millions of Afghan migrants, Pakistan has received huge international criticism which could lead to a humanitarian disaster with implications all over the region. Meanwhile, Pakistan has defended its stance of deporting Afghan migrants which it believes will help address its security threats. At the same time, Pakistan’s coercive diplomacy is seemingly not resulting in desired outcomes for Islamabad. So far there has been no credible cooperation from the Taliban regime and there is an increasing consensus within the security establishment in Pakistan that it should opt for precise military strikes within Afghan territories targeting the TTP hideouts and safe havens.
Amid persisting security concerns for Islamabad, Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Asim Munir went on his maiden US tour on 10 December 2023. Prior to Washington visit, General Munir met Thomas West, the US special representative for Afghanistan, who affirmed support for Pakistan in its fight against the TTP and other groups. The army chief’s visit to Washington is being seen by some analysts as a move to strengthen bilateral ties between the two countries, but it is also significant to note that the motive seemingly appears to influence US security and defence officials that terrorist groups such as the TTP and Islamic State’s Khorasan (IS-K) are posing a formidable threat to not only Pakistan but also to the United States and global security order. On other international fronts, Islamabad is actively raising the issue that the military equipment left behind during the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has made the TTP militants more pernicious in their attacks, as was recently raised by Usman Jadoon, Pakistan’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.4 Though at one level, the US has dismissed Islamabad’s claims of abandoning arms in Afghanistan, it appears to endorse the idea of close counter-terrorism cooperation to deal with such threats.
Meanwhile, in the wake of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, China seemingly appears to fill this vacuum. Besides bridging Afghanistan with China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing is also eyeing rich mineral resources and aims to increase its influence in Afghanistan and the larger region of southwest and central Asia. However, the growing terrorist attacks within Pakistan have alarmed China about the viability of CPEC projects and its larger extension in the region. These fears have significantly grown in the wake of rising terrorist attacks in Balochistan particularly after alleged collaboration between the TTP and various Baloch insurgents. Given this deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, China has asked the Taliban government to take resolute steps against all types of terrorist activities and ensure security and peace with neighbouring countries.5 Since Pakistan has nearly exhausted its approach of persuading the Taliban regime, there are strong possibilities that Islamabad may have reached out to its all-weather friend to press upon the Taliban regime to stop its suppor for TTP militants. China is also equally concerned about recent attacks in Gilgit-Balitistan (GB) particularly on the Karakoram national highway which remains a primary connecting route between China and Pakistan.
With the Supreme Court dispelling fears of elections postponement in Pakistan, there have been recent reports claiming that the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) President Fazlur-Rehman has been invited by the Taliban regime for peace talks. Fazlur Rahman possesses an influential role in religio-political circles and could potentially play an important role in addressing tensions in the bilateral relations. Though Pakistan’s foreign office has downplayed such initiatives, maybe such moves are part of the back-channel diplomacy which Islamabad may be relying on presently for certain purposes. Since Fazlur Rehman-led JUI-F is expected to be an electoral partner for the upcoming government in Pakistan, this move possibly orchestrated by the military establishment, is designed to attain two objectives. Firstly, it seeks to ensure safe elections in KP despite the prevalence of the TTP threats and also to leverage Rahman’s involvement in peace talks to secure his position in the upcoming government. Secondly, any degree of success in these talks could bring down the number of terrorist attacks within Pakistan, which are a must for a smooth and successful elections.
Muneeb Yousuf and Dr. Mohammad Usman Bhatti are Researchers at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) New Delhi.