If the group continues the same trajectory, by the end of 2024 it will not only match Taliban successes, evolve into a greater umbrella, but also overshadow Al Qaeda’s influence, making it potentially and operationally obsolete in the region, writes Anant Mishra
Even before Kabul fell in 2021, scholars argued that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was on the rise. During that time, after years of power tussle and fragmentation within the leadership, the group reflected signs of possible elevation and organizational maturity. To some scholars’ surprise, it not only withstood against the potent threats posed by the Islamic State then, it developed its influence through local affiliation, strengthened support within the loyalists/hardliners, refrained from targeting local civilians through suicide attacks, roadside bombings, and retained a heightened momentum of attacks.
During the Taliban’s two-year reign, TTP not only restructured itself after the Kabul takeover, but also focussed on gaining more affiliates, influence local groups, reinforce within the ranks, growing in strength and potency to become the single largest Islamist affiliate with the capacity to challenge Pakistani military establishments. If the group continues the same trajectory, by the end of 2024 it will not only match Taliban successes, evolve into a greater umbrella, but also overshadow Al Qaeda’s influence, making it potentially and operationally obsolete in the region. Hypothesising greater successes over vast geography in the northern regions of Pakistan and considering continued growth of affiliate groups, it can be reasonably predicted that Taliban fighters from Afghanistan will relocate to the border regions of Pakistan, with TTP re-focussing locally with a strengthened centralised organizational architecture, and a significant escalation in violence, forfeiting any prospect of a peace deal with Islamabad.
Mapping Taliban’s influence
Soon after the Taliban entered Kabul, the TTP became the first Islamist militant affiliate to officially celebrate the Taliban’s takeover. The world witnessed a formal declaration by the emir Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, hailing Taliban’s return as the greatest victory to jihad. He then formally renewed his group’s allegiance to the Taliban emir Hibatullah Akhundzada, promising unconditional support. Considering TTP’s veterancy in combatting US and their allies for over two decades in Afghanistan, the emir pledged his group by supporting the Taliban in ensuring stability and strengthening Taliban’s influence in the region.
During Taliban’s two-year reign, the author witnessed large scale recruitment within the TTP in the initial year and steady injection of fighters in the early months of 2023. The large-scale recruitment can be attributed to the release of prisoners held by US & allied forces including senior TTP leadership such as the deputy emir Maulawi Bajauri and former spokesperson Mufti Khalid Bulti. Fallowing his release, deputy emir Bajauri held numerous rallies of TTP fighters in Paktika, Nangahar, Khost and in Kunar province, bordering with the Bajaur district in Pakistan, his native. During his address, he emphasised renewed struggle against the militant state Pakistan, urging his fighters to renew their jihad against the state. Hailing local support, he claimed that the group was nearer to achieve victory against the state. According to one source, his recruitment rallies continue to witness large influx of sympathisers, injecting fighters within the TTP ranks, especially those hailing from the southern regions of Afghanistan.
That said, unlike the first year, the second year of Taliban reign witnessed Rahbari Shura making critical note on Pakistan’s stance on Pashtunistan and skirmishes at the border, resulting in key leadership echoing Taliban affiliates to join TTP’s jihad against the Pakistani state. On several accounts, members echoed on their religious obligation to support the TTP with active members in the Shura hailing from tribes loyal to the group. This resulted in an influx of Taliban members reinforcing TTP ranks, especially the suicide squads, in the latter half of 2022 and early 2023. Many Taliban fighters (at the provincial levels) have declared individual jihad against the Pakistani forces, a trend which could further reinforce TTP ranks in the fall of 2023 and early 2024.
For TTP the war against the state of Pakistan is conducted on similar grounds made by Taliban against the US led-allies and the erstwhile Islamic Republic. Hence, the two years of Taliban reign has bolstered TTP’s jihad against the Pakistani state and strengthened it organizationally, which is reflected in its sustained operations in the region. The Taliban remains sympathetic with some members of the leadership council openly advocating (unconventional stance) to strengthen the TTP ranks. If Taliban continues to demonstrate its strength in Afghanistan, the group could recall its fighters (in Taliban ranks), retaining a complete focus on the border regions. This would result in TTP enjoying greater levels of ‘strategic depth’ in Pakistan, reinforced by Taliban.
Projecting TTP’s growth
Taking the note of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) performance under Taliban’s two-year reign, the author highlights TTP’s growth on three key factors:
Centralising organizational architecture,
Focus on local objectives
Expanding influence through affiliates
The author witnessed TTP’s inclination to grow affiliates in early 2019, and by 2020 it had allegiance of at least three factions, but after the fall of Kabul, the process escalated enormously. In the initial year of the fall, TTP had over 23 affiliates, mostly local factions and hawala groups, with one faction (medium regional influence) seeking allegiance on the day of the fall. Since then, 11 factions joined the group in 2022, with 5 more factions taking allegiance in the first half of 2023. If TTP retains the rate of influence, 8 more factions operating independently but providing material support could potentially seek allegiance in the latter half of 2023 and early 2024.
In the first half of 2023, large influx of Pakistani militants under administrative control of Taliban, who took part in numerous insurgency operations, were ordered to join the TTP. This decision was taken in principle to the presence of Pakistani fighters, who had fulfilled their service in the fight against the US led allies, and according to one source, their experience could prove value to TTP rather than the Taliban, transitioning from insurgency to governance. This also pointed the Taliban’s inherent nature to view outsiders, even within their ranks. It is a point of argument, whether this nature is inherent with the Afghan sense of unity or insecurity emanating from disgruntled Taliban fighters joining ISKP ranks, with most holding Pakistani passports. Has the presence of foreign fighters made Taliban insensitive to their cause? The answer lies partially in Taliban’s response against those fighters holding Pakistani nationality, which according to one Taliban source, is a view that strengthens the narrative of Taliban being an ISI tool.
Furthermore, the deputy emir’s efforts to centralise TTP’s organizational architecture has renewed faith in the leadership, motivating local Pakistani militants to seek affiliation and execute a Taliban styled victory in Pakistan. By early 2024, Mehsud’s decision to centralise organizational architecture and modus operandi will bear fruits. By preventing any attacks against local civilians, TTP leadership have bolstered their presence as a just, true to its jihad Islamist group, an ideal for local sympathetic groups and hawala networks. This could pave the way for TTP to re-absorb factions that earlier broke away due to internal tussle and ambitions, demonstrating resilience.
With growing affiliates, TTP has bolstered its presence in two key ways: First, with greater affiliates TTP is no short supply of battle-hardened fighters within its rank, significantly impacting its fight against Pakistan. Key militant factions operating in Lakki Marwat, Lower Chitral, Khyber and Bannu districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces sought allegiances in January 2022. With majority Pakistani nationals within Taliban ranks hailing from the districts, TTP will expand its stronghold.
Second, the number of affiliates has provided strategic opportunity for TTP to expand in areas such as southern Balochistan or the tribal district of North Waziristan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. According to an expert, the allegiance by four Baloch militant groups in 2022, will support TTP in expanding its influence in the Baloch dominated areas of Balochistan province of Pakistan, in the latter half of 2023 or early 2024.
In 2024, the district of North Waziristan could become a point of contention between TTP and Hafiz Gul Bahadar (HGB). Although, North Waziristan was critical in the fight against US led allies in Afghanistan and continued to remain a contested land between ISI trained Islamist factions and those affiliated with Taliban. The TTP is still far away from enjoying an administrative dominance in the region. The region is a stronghold of Hafiz Gul Bahadar (HGB), a militant faction, which remains unchallenged for years. It received significant support from the Al-Qaeda and Haqqani Network, according to one source, is blessed by Sirajuddin Haqqani himself, making North Waziristan an uncontested HGB sanctuary. That said, it is yet to see if HGB will permit TTP from operating in region, especially when the region has witnessed more than nine militant factions seeking allegiance to the latter.
Centralised decision making
A key development that will contribute to TTP’s resurgence in the fall of 2023 and most of 2024, is it transitioning from an umbrella Islamist militant organization to a centralised organizational architecture, mirroring that of Taliban. TTP functioned on an umbrella architecture with local leadership exercising more power than the central command, which were heavily dependent on them even for the basic functions. Replacing them was getting difficult, especially powerful commanders.
The new organizational structure enables TTP leadership not only to appoint shadow governors but nominate/rotate key command units on critical appointments. The TTP began restructuring in 2022, and according to one source, may remain in transition till the fall of 2024. Referring to the new structure, the number of appointed individuals has increased, with the group formulating over seven known ministries (information and broadcasting, political affairs, defence, accountability, education, finance, and welfare), a dedicated intelligence directorate (based on General Directorate of Intelligence), suicide units have elevated to a dedicated brigade, a training centre, a court based on Islamic law, and a housing ministry which was formulated in the early 2023. The shadow provinces have also increased from six to nine with governors exercising similar powers bestowed to them by a dedicated shura, a provincial commander and a police chief.
According to one source, the leadership council functions in the similar as Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, which will consult with the Emir for all appointments, of all shadow provinces. The term minister will be referred to a member of the leadership council, who will be nominated by the Shura, in consultation with the Emir. Each minister will be assisted by a deputy; however, it remains unclear if the Emir is consulted over this appointment. Unlike Taliban’s Ministry of Interior (MoI) & Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), one of two largest ministries, TTP leadership gave special emphasis to the Ministry of Defence. It formulated two military commissions (North-zone and South-zone) by 2023, and by 2024 it may formulate two more. The military commission will be headed by a director, supported by a staff of six, reporting to a deputy, who will monitor vivid responsibilities of the commission.
It remains unclear whether the provincial shadow governor will supersede the military commission but, according to an expert, ministers have been given the power to appoint representatives at the provincial level on the recommendations of the director of concerned military commission, whose powers are expected to enhance as the organization restructures.
Renewed Focus: Pakistan
The nature of TTP has always been of a group rooted in local sentiments, engaged/affected, and even influenced by Pakistan’s tribal politics, with localised, territorial centric modus operandi. Yet, many argue over TTP’s extra-regional ambitions, pointing their decades of participation in insurgency against the US led allies, supporting jihadist movement elsewhere. Its history with Al-Qaeda also reminds us of the suicide bombing of a CIA base in Khost, one of many examples’ testimony to its global ambitions.
That said, under the leadership of Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, it is highly likely for TTP to undertake a transnational approach, especially when the emir admitted the same in a revised manifesto. After taking over the leadership in 2018, Mufti Mehsud drafted a memo with a new modus operandi of the group. The manifesto exclusively mentioned TTP to retain focus on local affiliates, making a commitment of focussing their fight against the Pakistani state.
TTP’s ability to retain its focus locally will depend on two key factors:
Al Qaeda’s declining influence in the region
Replicating Taliban’s success in Pakistan
One can hardly argue on the assistance provided by the Al-Qaeda to shape the future of TTP. Experts may deny Al Qaeda’s contribution in restructuring the group, but it remained vital until the group retained complete self-functional capability, in the first few years of establishment. Al-Qaeda not only exercised significant influence but from the appointment of emir to modus operandi was consulted with the Al Zawahiri for the first few years. In the initial years, the Al-Qaeda’s closely mentored and monitored group’s progress, sharing recruitment initiatives, and exchanging propaganda materials, while even financing few cross-border operations. However, with time, TTP outgrew but after the U.S. drone strike that killed AQ emir Ayman al- Zawahiri, TTP emerged from the shadows. Today, the influence of TTP is contested, with many scholars pointing towards the decline of Al Qaeda, as the principal reason for TTP to conduct recruitment uncontested. With AQ limited to train & assist, its operational capability is largely limited to advising Taliban or at best support TTP, losing its relevance as a jihadist/Islamist militant faction.
According to sources, TTP was closely monitoring the Doha accords, which could have been one of the reasons for the group to retain exclusive focus on localised issues. The Taliban’s victory at Doha (diplomatic) bolstered their commitment to focus on localised issues, enabling them to focus on local jihad and divert attention from cross border engagement to direct confrontation with Pakistani security establishments in Pakistan.
Taking the lessons from Taliban, the TTP leadership may focus on three key factors:
Engaging Pakistani security establishments (One State, One Enemy)
Bolster influence through affiliates,
Strict adherence to united cause (Ideologue synchronisation).
Learning from the Taliban’s two decades of insurgency, TTP may restructure its current modus operandi to:
Like Taliban, it may focus on local recruitment, expansion of local affiliates, prioritising Pakistani jihadists
Like Taliban, TTP may forfeit fighting along the border, across trans-national territories.
Like Taliban, TTP may focus its propaganda to the failures of Pakistani state as a net security provider. Its narrative may target economic and political instability in the state.
TTP may renew their campaign to target political elites and continue to blame civil and military leadership of corruption, resulting in severe economic crisis of the state accusing them of stealing from the people.
Unlike Taliban, TTP has not demonstrated any political agenda or proposed itself as an alternate to the federal government
It may demonstrate itself as the sole entity capable of bringing an ease to current political crisis in Pakistan, making claims of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan under the Taliban rule.
Looking at the Future
Taking a note of TTP’s trajectory, the emir Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, appears to replicate Taliban’s organizational structure and carry similar reforms undertaken by the slayed Taliban emir Mullah Mansour, to strengthen and bolster regionally. As discussed in the statements in detail, it can be predicted that the group to likely to limit its immediate objective within the state of Pakistan by early 2024. Replicating a Taliban model, TTP may hope to achieve Taliban styled victory in Pakistan.
(Anant Mishra specialises on Afghanistan, where he has served three combat deployments. He was adviser to key military and civilian leaders of the Ashraf Ghani government. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)