Pakistani Taliban Go to War While People March for Peace

Twenty years of double-dealing with insurgents has consequences.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Security officials place flowers on the coffin of a police officer who was killed in an ambush in Pakistan.
Security officials place flowers on the coffin of a police officer who was killed in an ambush in Pakistan.
Security officials place flowers on the coffin of a police officer who was killed in an ambush in the village of Shahab Khel in Lakki Marwat, Pakistan, on Nov. 16. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

In Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions, tens of thousands of people are protesting against the government’s failure to keep them safe from attacks by resurgent terrorists. Ten years after gunmen boarded a school bus and shot a teenager in the face to silence her campaign for girls’ education, people fear Taliban extremists are bringing death and misery back to their valleys.

Malala Yousafzai survived the attack on her in October 2012, went on to become a global advocate for girls’ schooling, and won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. But many others in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province weren’t so lucky. Thousands of people were killed and millions displaced in a vicious insurgency waged by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani franchise of the group that took control of Afghanistan last year. 

Emboldened by victory and now protected by their Afghan brothers, the TTP have broken an “indefinite” cease-fire declared in June to reignite their war against the Pakistani state. Their aim is to establish a totalitarian Islamist state in Pakistan just like that in Afghanistan. The deadliest attack of this creeping resurgence happened in the city of Lakki Marwat on Nov. 16, when at least six police officers were killed in an ambush. Days earlier, in Daraban, two police at a checkpoint were killed, according to Pakistan’s Express Tribune, by gunmen using weapons left behind after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan in August 2021.

In Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions, tens of thousands of people are protesting against the government’s failure to keep them safe from attacks by resurgent terrorists. Ten years after gunmen boarded a school bus and shot a teenager in the face to silence her campaign for girls’ education, people fear Taliban extremists are bringing death and misery back to their valleys.

Malala Yousafzai survived the attack on her in October 2012, went on to become a global advocate for girls’ schooling, and won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize. But many others in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province weren’t so lucky. Thousands of people were killed and millions displaced in a vicious insurgency waged by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani franchise of the group that took control of Afghanistan last year. 

Emboldened by victory and now protected by their Afghan brothers, the TTP have broken an “indefinite” cease-fire declared in June to reignite their war against the Pakistani state. Their aim is to establish a totalitarian Islamist state in Pakistan just like that in Afghanistan. The deadliest attack of this creeping resurgence happened in the city of Lakki Marwat on Nov. 16, when at least six police officers were killed in an ambush. Days earlier, in Daraban, two police at a checkpoint were killed, according to Pakistan’s Express Tribune, by gunmen using weapons left behind after the U.S. exit from Afghanistan in August 2021.

The TTP are exploiting weak government and political turmoil in Islamabad; the failure of peace talks brokered by one of the Afghan Taliban’s most brutal terrorists, Sirajuddin Haqqani; and the Pakistani military’s failure to secure Khyber Pakhtunkhwa against the TTP’s reemergence. Local politicians, police, and businesspeople are being threatened into silence, and many are paying TTP extortion money. But ordinary folks don’t have that option. Just the thought of a TTP comeback is spreading terror as people recall past horrors—shootings, bombings, kidnappings, rapes, beheadings, and bodies dumped as warnings.

“I never want to go through that again,” a woman told Dawn newspaper. Women running businesses fear being forced back into their homes, and girls worry their schools will be closed. Afraid and frustrated by the ineffectiveness of the security forces, people regularly pour onto the streets, carrying banners with slogans such as “We want peace on our soil” and “No more terrorism.” The mass marches began after the first major attack in more than a decade, in Swat on Sept. 13, when a bomb killed Idrees Khan, an elder who had led an anti-TTP tribal force.

“This is a very large-scale political uprising against the presence of TTP, by people who have experienced their presence in the past,” said former parliamentarian Afrasiab Khattak, who was born in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 

The TTP’s writ over the region peaked in 2014 with an attack on an army-run school in Peshawar that killed more than 140 people, mostly children, prompting retaliatory operations that pushed the militants into Afghanistan. During the preceding decade, Khattak said, they had “killed thousands of elders in Swat, Waziristan, and other areas. Their rule was brutal. Now, when they see the footprint of TTP in their areas, the people are taking to the streets [because] the state fails to keep its people safe and fails to bring the killers to justice.”

That twin failure is likely due to a huge miscalculation that the Taliban would be grateful for Pakistan’s support of their war against the Western-backed Afghan republic. It was clear, almost immediately after their August takeover, that that wasn’t going to happen. Afghan Taliban leaders who had enjoyed decades of protection in Pakistan invited the TTP into Afghanistan, and their campaign against the Islamabad government has continued afresh from over the border. After a series of attacks on its military, Pakistan retaliated with air raids on suspected TTP positions inside Afghanistan. That action backfired—at least 45 people were reportedly killed, mostly civilians, including children—antagonizing the Taliban as a whole. Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, is expected to raise cross-border terrorism when she meets Taliban figures in Kabul on Nov. 29.

They may be known by different names, Khattak said, but a rose is a rose by any name. Any differentiation between the Afghan and Pakistani groups “is artificial. It is one Taliban.” They share ideology and ethnic and tribal ties—especially with the Haqqani network, headed by the Taliban’s acting interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani—and both are affiliated with al Qaeda. Their shared goal is to install an Islamist regime based on their version of sharia, or Islamic law.

This puts Pakistan on a “knife-edge,” a recent editorial in Dawn said. “The grim reality is that we are at a point where militancy could once again start raging out of control, if not tackled immediately.” Despite some success by the security forces, “the last few months have made it quite apparent that the militants are in the ascendant.”

The scale of the demonstrations might reflect the fear of the local population, but that doesn’t seem to resonate with either politicians or the military. The chief of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police, Moazzam Jah Ansari, said the Nov. 16 attack was proof the TTP were “taking their last breaths.”

“The civilian government seems to be content with sourcing the problem to the security state,” Khattak said. “They are not in the picture.” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s administration, which took power in April after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, is focused on its own survival while taking a “disconcertingly nonchalant approach” to the uptick in TTP terrorism, the Dawn editorial said. 

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa isn’t the only region dealing with insurgent violence; nationalists seeking independence in southwestern Balochistan province have launched attacks on military targets this year, presenting the government with a two-pronged security headache. This comes amid an economic crisis with double-digit inflation, huge debts to multilateral lending institutions, and the massive cost of damages from summer floods, caused by heavy monsoon rains attributed to climate change.

Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia expert at the United States Institute of Peace, said Islamabad’s attempts to talk peace with the TTP have probably run out of steam, but Sharif, under pressure from Khan’s “unrelenting political challenge, may be tempted to give talks another chance to keep a lid on violence and focus on the economy.”

By even entertaining peace talks with the TTP, Islamabad showed its inability to restore and maintain its own authority in the tribal regions. The group made demands that, if acquiesced to, would undermine the stability of the state and, potentially, boost the confidence of other militant groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Time may be running out for both the Islamabad government and the TTP. Khattak said the latter “has remodeled itself in the past two years to copy the Afghan Taliban” in the hope of mirroring their success. The TTP are setting up shadow governance and judicial structures across northwestern Pakistan, a tactic that worked well in Afghanistan as alternatives to the corrupt and inept republic institutions. 

“The political parties are lagging behind the people,” Khattak said. “Once again, it is an explosive situation.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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