Is Pakistan Poised to Take on the TTP?
Amid Pakistan’s economic crisis and the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban have reemerged as an increasingly potent threat.
The Pakistani Taliban’s late January attack in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, claimed the lives of more than 100 worshipping at a police compound mosque. The bombing was claimed by a faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban) initially, but later denied by the TTP’s central leadership. It was the group’s deadliest attack since its 2021 resurgence after the Afghan Taliban took power in Afghanistan. As Pakistan struggles with a major economic crisis, the fallout from the deadly floods of last fall and an ever-turbulent political scene, the TTP’s growing threat presents yet another challenge for the struggling nation.
USIP’s Asfandyar Mir, Andrew Watkins and Tamanna Salikuddin weigh in on what the attack indicates about the strength of the TTP, how Islamabad could respond, the Afghan Taliban’s posture toward the TTP and the options for U.S. policymakers.
What does the Peshawar bombing indicate about the scale of the TTP’s threat to Pakistan?
Mir: The Peshawar attack, conducted by a faction of the TTP, is one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan in recent years. Its lethality and the ability of the attackers to penetrate deep inside what should be the most secure part of Peshawar suggests that the TTP has re-constituted a critical capability of urban attacks. The attack follows an escalation in the TTP’s violence including IED explosions and targeted attacks since late last year when the cease-fire between Pakistan and the TTP collapsed. Taken together, this signifies the steadily ascendant trajectory of the TTP, presenting a major medium- to long-term challenge for Pakistan.
The TTP’s escalating campaign of violence is a function of its growing political and material strength — reflected in its political cohesion, expanding cadre of trained fighters, suicide bombers, weapons and equipment. Much of the TTP’s political leadership and capability is based in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the TTP has regained some territorial influence in southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, like South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Tank, Bannu and Lakki Marwat. The TTP is able to fundraise through extortion inside Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan — across provinces, there are fundraising drives for the group’s so-called jihad.
The Afghan Taliban remain very supportive of the TTP and are providing the group with a permissive safe haven. The TTP also has a lot of popular support in Afghanistan, where both Taliban and non-Taliban constituencies get behind the TTP due to a fervent dislike for Pakistan. Some Taliban fighters are also joining the TTP, and there are reports of some recent bombers being Afghan. A handful of Taliban leaders, in particular Taliban Interior Minister Siraj Haqqani, have restrained the TTP on Pakistani requests on occasion. Yet the balance of opinion within the Taliban is strongly in favor of the TTP and its campaign. In particular, Taliban Amir Hibatullah Akhundzada agrees with the TTP that Pakistani system is “un-Islamic.”
Could this attack shift the Afghan Taliban’s calculus regarding its TTP’s ties? How is the Afghan Taliban likely to respond going forward?
Watkins: The Afghan Taliban appear unlikely to shift their strategic calculus on providing support to the TTP. In the weeks prior and days after the attack, their public messaging has been almost defiant, offering the weakest of condemnations and painting Pakistan as ultimately responsible for militancy within its borders. Speaking to a gathering in Kabul two days after the attack, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, warned Pakistan against “pointing fingers” or “sowing the seeds of enmity.”
This undiplomatic rhetoric underscores the Taliban’s determination to continue supporting the TTP, even in the face of intensified pressure from Pakistan. In January, Taliban security officials leaked a memo to local press that offered a description of training camps allegedly based in Pakistan and supported by the Pakistani security establishment, where thousands of Islamic State fighters were preparing to attack Afghanistan. In effect, the Taliban’s response to being confronted about their support for TTP has been to level counteraccusations — which does not signal an impending shift away from that support.
These rhetorical signals are matched by anecdotal reports from U.N. officials and other observers of TTP individuals moving freely and conducting business in Afghan cities. Meanwhile, interlocutors with access to Kandahar report that the emir and his close advisors are unlikely to waiver in supporting the TTP on ideological grounds.
However, in spite of the Taliban’s firm strategic calculus in favor of the TTP, their leadership appears to understand the importance of maintaining a functional relationship with Pakistan — or at least preventing tensions from deteriorating into full-scale conflict. The Taliban’s posture moving forward will likely appear like a tug-of-war, alternating between moments of tension and de-escalation.
How is Pakistan likely to respond?
Mir: Pakistan’s response to the TTP’s resurgence remains incoherent — and it is unlikely to improve in the near-term. After downplaying the TTP’s strength as well as the Taliban’s influence on and relationship with TTP for several years, Pakistani leaders now seem to be contending with the depth of Taliban support for the TTP. Yet Pakistani officials still seem to be searching for a deal — ideally a cease-fire arrangement — through the Taliban. The military and intelligence leadership, as well as officials at the Foreign Ministry, appear to want to work with the Taliban, viewing it as more favorable than the former republic government — which is indicated by Pakistan continuously asking the international community to engage the Taliban. But the Taliban’s uncompromising commitment to the TTP means that Pakistan has to either ignore the violence or concede to the TTP to maintain a relationship with the Taliban.
Another key factor shaping the Pakistani response is the country’s deteriorating economy, which is on the brink of a default. That limits Pakistan’s military options. Pakistan can carry out raids and undertake defensive actions inside the country, but it doesn’t have the resources for a sustained high-intensity campaign. Pakistan has flirted with the idea of cross-border airstrikes again, which it last conducted in April 2022. There is some growing pressure for action, as parts of the Pakistani political spectrum are framing the terrorism resurgence as a conspiracy by the military to block former prime minister Imran Khan’s return to power and to get American aid. Yet economic pressures and the risk of a conflict spiral, especially amid reports of Taliban fighters joining the TTP, may induce doubts in Pakistan about such a cross-border operation.
Does the TTP threaten U.S. interests?
Mir: While the TTP’s threat to Pakistan is clear, the threat it poses to American interests is nebulous. When the group first emerged in 2007, it posed a direct threat to the United States in several ways. It was supporting the Taliban’s insurgency against the U.S. military and the now defunct Afghan government. It was attempting to — and at times actually killing — U.S. personnel in complex attacks. For example, in December 2009, in a joint operation with al-Qaida, the TTP succeeded in flipping a spy sent by the CIA to infiltrate al-Qaida leadership in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, dispatched him back to his CIA and partner government handlers with a suicide bomb at a forward base in eastern Afghanistan, which killed multiple CIA officers. In 2010, the TTP attempted an attack in New York City’s Times Square, which failed.
In 2023, the TTP doesn’t pose such a direct threat to the United States, at least in the near-term. In contrast to the past, TTP messaging makes the point that it has no direct aims against the United States. In general, the group appears more focused on its local agenda against Pakistan. One of the main reasons for this shift is the current leader of the TTP, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud.
In Mehsud’s diagnosis of the decline of the TTP from 2011 to 2017, the biggest setback for the group was its targeting by U.S. drone strikes, which eroded the TTP’s combat potential. Mehsud is deterred from taking on the United States by the fear of drone strikes. So, he is steering clear of provocations and plotting against the United States, in the hope of not triggering another campaign of drone strikes against his group. The TTP’s calculus could always change with new leadership. And even under Mehsud, some risk remains as the TTP is unpredictable, having undertaken attacks that belie its stated targets including against Chinese diplomats in Pakistan.
With that said, the TTP continues to incubate other direct threats to the United States. For one, elements of al-Qaida and its South Asia affiliate continue to shelter behind the TTP in Afghanistan. In general, the TTP remains helpful to al-Qaida — although perhaps less so than in the past. If the TTP gains territory in Pakistan, al-Qaida will look for space in territories controlled by the TTP. There are other foreign fighters in Afghanistan with varied regional agendas, who will find a haven in Pakistan should the TTP make major territorial gains. The more important way in which the TTP can threaten U.S. interests is by seriously destabilizing Pakistan. This possibility is real yet not imminent. If it were to materialize, it will raise the specter of eroded Pakistani nuclear security, broader regional instability and migration concerns.
What policy options does the United States have?
Salikuddin: Unlike the TTP’s previous terror campaign from 2007 to 2014, this time the Afghan Taliban are in control in Afghanistan and the United States has no military presence in the region: two factors which make U.S. policy options against the TTP far more limited. In previous years, the United States had the intelligence and military posture to be able to help the Pakistani government and military when it went after the TTP. Today, the United States is far more constrained even in its understanding and capacity to help in any kinetic action against the TTP. As mentioned, the threat to the United States from the TTP is also far more nebulous — a reality that will not make this growing threat a U.S. policy priority. On the flip side, the United States does not currently factor in the TTP’s calculus, and any direct policy options which would change that and make the United States a target of the TTP or even the Afghan Taliban would not be palatable in Washington.
Given the current economic and political crisis in Pakistan, U.S. policymakers may be well placed to have conversations with Pakistani leaders about the need to focus and develop a clear counter-TTP plan. However, Washington’s ability to shape or assist on such a plan will be limited. Continued U.S. support to Pakistani police and other law enforcement agencies, including training and tactical equipment, may be useful in the fight against TTP. The larger question will be how Pakistan will handle the Afghan Taliban who provide safe haven to the TTP. It is unlikely that the Pakistanis will heed any U.S. suggestions to pressure the Afghan Taliban in Kabul (let alone break ties). If Pakistan takes action within Afghanistan and against the Afghan Taliban, it will be because of decisive move emanating from Islamabad, and not at the behest of the United States.