Monday’s suicide blast at a mosque in Peshawar’s Police Lines area now makes it clear that Pakistan’s own “war on terror” has resurfaced in major cities, reminiscent of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Incidents of terrorism have reportedly more than doubled in Pakistan, with 319 in 2020 compared to 630 in 2022. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is one of the main culprits of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, particularly those targeting the military and police.
The TTP formally denounced yesterday’s attack, despite an individual commander taking credit earlier. Other recent attacks on Pakistan’s police have gone unclaimed, but the TTP is the main beneficiary. This mirrors the pattern of unclaimed violence inflicted on Afghans in the preceding months before Kabul’s eventual collapse. In cities like Peshawar, Pakistan’s police are literally being hunted by terrorists while on and off duty.
The uptick in violence has led Pakistan’s government to engage in direct negotiations with the TTP, sometimes using the Afghan Taliban as a host. However, these negotiations have been unsuccessful, and past experience has demonstrated that brokered ceasefires with the TTP do not last. Pakistan’s authorities even sent a clerical delegation to Afghanistan led by the revered Deobandi cleric Mufti Taqi Usmani to negotiate with the TTP. Usmani used his notoriety and scholarly credentials to declare it impermissible to attack the Pakistani state.
ON THE RISE AGAIN
The rise of TTP attacks can be attributed to a variety of conditions. The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent ascendance of the Afghan Taliban, which has provided refuge to at least 6,000 members of the TTP, has been a material and morale booster for the group. Even the Haqqani wing of the Taliban’s leadership has been unsympathetic to Pakistan’s concerns. This is compounded by an end to US drone strikes, which while controversial, also disrupted militant groups in Pakistan.
The TTP is also taking advantage of the strained relationship between the Pakistani government and the inhabitants of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Military operations, arbitrary detentions, low investment, and a sense of exclusion from mainstream Pakistani politics have alienated some inhabitants of the tribal areas. This has been further deteriorated by the stern approach taken toward the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which is essentially a Pashtun civil rights movement but has been strident in its criticism of the Pakistani state. Moreover, the volatile parliamentary politics, anti-military sentiment in the country, and the economic freefall in Pakistan may have prompted the TTP to escalate its campaign.
HOW PAKISTAN ENDED UP ALONE
Pakistan is exposed to several violent non-state actors, but the specter of the TTP looms largest due to its particularly violent past. Established in its current form in 2007, the TTP is sometimes referred to as the “Pakistani Taliban” but is really an amalgamation of several militant factions that frequently splinter and merge. The TTP’s attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School in 2014 brought a stark realization of the severity of the situation in Pakistan, leading to large-scale military operations by the Pakistan army. Pakistan’s military paid a high cost, evidenced by high casualties in the field, terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s military headquarters, and a separate attack on a mosque that killed senior officers and 17 children.
Pakistan now finds itself alone in its fight against the TTP, as violence in the region is not a top priority for Washington or Pakistan’s other close partners.
For years, an unofficial narrative prevailed in Washington and Kabul that painted the Afghan Taliban as mere stooges of the Pakistani deep state that could be turned on and off like a faucet. It was assumed that any hostility toward Pakistan was a result of its double dealing. In Pakistan, a common opinion was that the TTP and similar groups were a consequence of the US war in Afghanistan, and it was believed that if negotiations with the Afghan Taliban were successful and the war concluded, violence within Pakistan would cease. Both narratives proved false.
Washington’s decision-makers never considered the defeat of the Taliban and stability in Afghanistan to be a top priority or a vital interest. This can be understood from President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, President Barack Obama’s choice to surge on a timeline, President Donald Trump’s expedited negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, and President Joe Biden’s ultimate decision to withdraw. Throughout, Pakistan chose to hedge its bets by supporting both NATO forces and certain Taliban factions.
It is widely parroted in Washington that a more favorable bargain could have been struck if Pakistan’s foreign policy was solely managed by its civilian government. But this is speculation at best, and US policymakers need to recognize that the early concessions extracted from military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, even if they did not meet Washington’s expectations, were unlikely to have occurred under civilian leadership, and certainly not with such speed.
These conditions prevented a stronger US-Pakistan partnership against militant groups that could have potentially altered history. Instead, the actions taken by the United States and Pakistan were highly disparate, contributing to a back-and-forth militant activity along the border. For instance, militants crossed between Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan when the US military was heavily concentrated in Kunar and Nuristan. In contrast, the US military redirected its attention to southwestern Afghanistan when Pakistan was targeting militants in Swat and Lower Dir.
NEGOTIATIONS AREN’T ENOUGH
Negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and TTP both produced mixed results. The Doha agreement allowed US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan safely, but the Taliban have lived up to few of its other aims. Pakistan’s past talks with the TTP have produced short-term reductions in violence that quickly unravel. While the United States sought to end their involvement, Pakistan is negotiating for the sake of its internal security. This is the key difference and reason why negotiations with the TTP are unlikely to solve Pakistan’s long-term troubles.
Pakistan now finds itself alone in this fight, as violence in the region is not a top priority for Washington or Pakistan’s other close partners. By the time the violence reaches a level that would shift these calculations, the situation will have significantly deteriorated. What is most important now is the Pakistani government’s relationship with the communities most affected by the TTP, the health of its police force and judicial system, and the willingness of its political elites to prioritize the security of its citizens.
Adam Weinstein is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and focuses on Afghanistan and Pakistan.