By Manish Rai
May 16, 2015
The Pakistan army launched Operation Khyber-2 in the tribal region as part of its stepped-up efforts since a militant attack in December 2014 killed 150 people, mostly children, in Peshawar’s Army Public School. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is being squeezed out of their former tribal strongholds. Since the beginning of Operation Zarb-e-Azb after the Karachi airport attack last year, TTP militants have fled to other tribal regions, including to Khyber and its Tirah Valley that borders Afghanistan. They appear to be moving across the border and seem to operate from both sides of the Durand Line. However, the situation drastically changed after the recent very effective Khyber-2 operation in which most of the hideouts in the strongholds have been lost by the militants; now they are being squeezed from all sides by the Pakistani security forces. The TTP, which once had a presence across the country, is rapidly losing ground and facing an existential threat. In recent months, after the attack on the school in Peshawar, the Pakistan government has upped the ante against the TTP and its allied militant organisations. The military has destroyed all the command and control centres of the banned TTP. Now, to put up effective resistance against the security forces and to show its strength, the TTP leadership has initiated efforts to unite the various factions that broke away.
Recently, three jihadist groups, including one led by a key commander who has served as a senior leader in al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) have united with the Pakistani Taliban. The merger is part of the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan’s efforts to rebuild itself, likely with the guidance of al Qaeda. The merger is part of the TTP’s attempt to rebuild its shattered image in the wake of the ongoing military operations. After the killing of Hakeemullah Mehsud, the Taliban appointed Mullah Fazlullah to lead the TTP but multiple factions were unhappy with the choice and split, including two Mehsud factions in North and South Waziristan, and a large branch led by Omar Khalid Khorasani. However, Omar Khalid Khorasani’s faction (Jamaat ul Ahrar) and Lashkar-e-Islam of Mangal Bagh rejoined the TTP early last month as part of the effort to mend the rift between the jihadist groups. The decision of the merger was taken at a meeting attended by Mullah Fazlullah, Omar Khalid Khorasani and Mangal Bagh. The head of the new set-up has yet to be named. It is worth noting that the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Islam, led by Mangal Bagh, have been allied to each other for a long time but they have never formally come together to make a combined command structure, pooling resources and becoming a fighting force. The TTP is also now trying hard to initiate good relations with its previous affiliates like Harkatul Jihad Al Islami, the Qari Saifullah Akhtar Group, Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and some Chechen groups. Now the TTP’s core organisation is not a big group with its cadre at most at 5-7,000, which was about 25-30,000 when it was united under the strong leadership of Baitullah and Hakeemullah Mehsud.
The recent regrouping of various TTP factions suggests efforts may be underway for broader cooperation. Moreover, the TTP wants to be in the limelight and is trying to send the message of its presence through the media. The ongoing military operations have forced it to adopt such tactics just to show its power. In fact, these groups have broadly lost their ability to conduct major terrorist activities solely on their own and are on the run. But, according to some senior security analysts, the developments regarding this regrouping were of little significance in the prevailing situation as it may be just a propaganda tool rather than a major game changing realignment. The next few months will be critical in determining whether this new tactic of the TTP is effective against the security forces’ operations or a simple name change for some existing groups, or whether it will act as a new, unifying umbrella. But one thing is becoming quite certain: al Qaeda is playing a major role in all these patch up activities. Al Qaeda and the TTP have had a close working relationship since the latter was formed in December 2007. The Pakistani Taliban have provided shelter for al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas, while al Qaeda has provided military expertise and access to global donors. Seeing the TTP fighting for its survival, al-Qaeda has come to its rescue. The light at the end of the TTP tunnel, i.e. the Afghan Taliban, have turned a blind eye to all this activity for fear of annoying the Pakistan army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Al Qaeda is acting as the interlocutor and mediator for this regrouping. And one thing is certain: closer to al Qaeda than to the Afghan Taliban, the TTP is a formidable challenge for Islamabad and the region.
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and is editor of a geo-political news agency.