Yet another year of the worst era of insecurity in Pakistan has come to an end but in comparison to the previous few years, 2016 remained less deadly due to the constraints on the activities umbrella organization of extremist and militants, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). During the year, the TTP could not carry out large-scale terrorist attacks in Pakistan, particularly the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which had been the main target and theatre of activities of the terrorist group. There are different reasons behind the growing ineffectiveness of the TTP to carry out large-scale and extensive terrorist attacks in Pakistan particularly the KP.
The foremost of these reasons has been a continual factionalism within the ranks of the TTP. The splintering of the TTP was exacerbated in late 2014, particularly after the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State (IS). At that point, important militant commanders from the TTP, including its spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, and five regional emirs-Hafiz Dolat Khan from Kurram, Hafiz Saeed Khan from Orakzai, Maulana Gul Zaman from Khyber, Mufti Hassan Swati from Peshawar, and Khalid Mansoor from Hangu-left the TTP and joined the IS based in Afghanistan.
The rise of the IS has been increasingly attracting Pakistani militant groups or their members to its fold. However, the pull of the IS was a relatively new factor in the fragmentation of the TTP as already other factors pushed various commanders to bid adieu to it. In this regard the death of former chief of the TTP, Commander Hakimullah Mehsud, in a United States drone attack in September 2013, was instrumental. The killing of Hakimullah unleashed a power struggle among the top commanders of the umbrella organization to capture the group’s top slot. On the one hand Khalid Mehsud alias Sajna announced to have succeeded Hakimullah, whereas Hakimullah’s nephew, Shaharyar, had laid claim to the TTP top position. Amid resultant infighting and chaos, the TTP Shura declared Afghanistan-based, Fazlullah, as the new commander of the TTP. As Fazlullah was geographically removed from the core of the Mehsud-inhabited part of the South Waziristan-based TTP leadership, he was considered as an outsider. Consequently, he could not play the role of a gelling agent to keep intact all the disparate chapters of the TTP, despite that he admittedly orchestrated the APS attack in Peshawar in December 2014.
It was the process of talks sanctioned by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, under advice from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan, with the TTP leadership, which created further cracks in the rank and file of the TTP. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leadership was completely against talks with the TTP and almost all voiced concern against such an option in the Central Executive Committee meetings of the party before the government made the decision for negotiations in 2013. But it was only Prime Minister Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who completely backed Imran Khan’s consistence stance of talks with the Taliban. If one recalls PM Sharif personally visited Bani Gala to have a meeting with Imran Khan. The PTI leadership on numerous occasions had defended its apparently pro-Taliban stance by arguing that talks would develop cracks within the Taliban, which happened.
Pakistan army’s operation, Zarb-e-Azb, launched on June 17, 2014, against the TTP and its foreign and local affiliates, in its largest redoubt, North Waziristan, has been very effective in clearing out the virtual fiefdom of the militants in the region. Operation Zarb-e-Azb started when talks had already developed cracks in the ranks of the militants.
After facing so many challenges, the TTP commanders had to search for themselves alternate avenues to survive. Against this backdrop, the rise of ISIS was timely for the disgruntled commanders of the TTP. The establishment of a so-called Islamic Caliphate by ISIS, and its head Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s announcement of appointing himself as the Amir-ul-Momineen (leader of the Muslims) across the world, started attracting Pakistani Taliban commanders. But it must be noted that despite joining hands with IS, the TTP commanders could not stage large-scale terrorist attacks in Pakistan in the year 2016, when IS was involved in gory incidents and violence in its main theatre of Iraq and Syria. This may be due to the fact that IS has not been able to find a fertile environment in Pakistan so far, and also that most of its recruits from Pakistan, especially the TTP, have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight. However, there is every possibility that once IS would face more reverses in the Middle East, its leadership would try to relocate to Afghanistan and Pakistan by using its recruits from the latter countries. More importantly, the TTP renegades joining IS has so far had little negative impact on Pakistan because they are largely based in Afghanistan where both enjoy official institutional-intelligence patronage.
In August this year, the commanding general of the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, General John W. Nicholson, had revealed that most of the fighters of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan are Pakistani Taliban, raising alarms regarding the potential threat which Afghanistan-based IS militants pose to the security of Pakistan and its citizens. General Nicholson had stated that nearly 70 per cent of the fighters of the militant IS group in Afghanistan were Pakistani Taliban who joined IS after having been forced out of their country. The general had admitted that many of these terrorists were forced out of Pakistan by the Zarb-i-Azb military operation. This was an admission of the effectiveness of Operation Zarb-e-Azb by Pakistani forces in FATA and KP, as well in the rest of the country and slap in the face of the detractors of the operation within the Afghan establishment and their agents in Pakistan. The official patronage by Afghan officers to the IS and the TTP and their nexus in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous for Pakistan and this might result in large-scale attacks in Pakistan in the months ahead, in case there is failure on the part of our state and society to understand the situation and take appropriate steps to pre-empt disaster.
The failure of the TTP to give a practical shape to its worrisome threat to attack educational institutions, particularly universities in Janaury 2016, after it launched the deadly attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda also illustrates the weakness of the group. The threat to attack more educational institutions was aired by an unknown Taliban commander, referred to as Umar Mansour by media channels, in a long video posted on social media soon after the attack on the Bacha Khan University. In the video, the commander, Khalifa Umar Mansoor, had said that attack was just the start. The logic of attacking more educational institutions, according to Mansour, is to hit the “evil democratic” system at its base. He explained the rationale of attacking educational institutions by arguing that Pakistan’s educational institutions provide the future workforce for the military and the government — all of which work against the “Will of God”. He had further argued: “Pakistan’s evil democratic system, its military and political leadership have these educational institutions as their nurseries. . . We have decided to target schools, colleges and universities from now on. We will demolish the foundation of this evil system.” In fact,this threat was made out of frustration and showed the weakness of the TTP in planning to attack soft targets.
However, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, where the Charsadda attack took place, had decided, rightly so, not to close down educational institutions. In January 2016, we wrote in these lines that the TTP would not be able to carry out the threat. We wrote: One hopes Mansour’s group would not be able to launch more attacks on the educational institutions in KPK and other parts of the country. This is despite the fact that these institutions are the softest targets. Because federal and provincial governments have already taken stringent steps to secure educational institutions. So if the best available terrorists and suicide-attackers of the group could not carry out large-scale devastation, due to timely police action, at the Bacha Khan University, how could it launch further attacks on the numerous educational institutions across the country or, even in KPK?