Two Heads, Same Body?

To simply brand the fundamentalist Islamic militia dispersed across Afghanistan and Pakistan as ‘Taliban’ – meaning ‘students’ in Pashto – is both inadequate and misleading. Although this umbrella term seems to amalgamate Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) with neighbouring Afghanistan’s Kandahari and Paktia Taliban, the movements in reality share little more than a name, religion, and a predominantly Pashtun heritage. Dr Gilles Dorronsoro, a security expert specialising in central and southern Asia, asserts that employing the term ‘Taliban’ monolithically “causes all kind of confusion”… distinction between the TTP and Afghan Taliban is paramount. But before juxtaposition, it would be appropriate to examine the formation of the TTP, its motives, and the threat it denotes within Pakistan.

Image courtesy of the European Pressphoto Agency © 2013, free of copyright
Image courtesy of the European Pressphoto Agency © 2013, free of copyright

Yousaf Raza Gillani, a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, spectacularly missed the mark when he articulated that Islamic militias based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) posed little threat to the state. Indeed, figures speak volumes about his misjudgement: just two years after his statement in 2007, Pakistani civilian deaths at the hands of insurgents had risen to 3,021, surpassing non-combatant fatalities in Afghanistan, and a 33 per cent rise on the previous year. Another 7,300 were wounded. 87 suicide attacks were piloted alongside 67 sectarian clashes and, in Karachi alone, 747 people were gunned down including 7 journalists.  No doubt, the formalisation, organisation and unification of these ‘innocuous’ tribal militias proved propitious towards such an alarming lapse in Pakistan’s domestic security.


On December 12, 2007, in North Waziristan, some 40 tribal leaders who commanded separate militias descended from their mountainous bases in the north to coalesce into a new entity: the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Movement of the Pakistani Taliban. Many of these militia men had gained a wealth of experience fighting amongst the Afghan Taliban before returning to their homeland. A 1998 U.S. State Department report proclaimed that ‘20–40 per cent of Taliban forces in Afghanistan [were] Pakistani.’ Arguably, it was appropriate to collectively label these previously detached militias as the Pakistani Taliban. But by 2007, with some 40,000 men claimed under a loosely centralized but Pakistani-based command, collective objectives could be established and a solitary identity could be forged. A young militant, Baitullah Mehsud, was designated as the movement’s new leader.

The underlying pretext for unification was to effectively contest NATO forces in Afghanistan, and wage defensive jihad against the Pakistan army. Further to this, the TTP existed to redefine Pakistan in religious terms, seeking to dissolve national borders with the view to inaugurating a caliphate, as well as abetting Islamic extremism.  Although lacking sufficient support to seize state power, the TTP have a proven ability to disrupt the state and foment anarchy.

In 2007 there were 56 suicide bombings that killed 865 Pakistani security forces and civilians, exceeding the total losses for all years between 2001 and 2006. There had been just six suicide attacks a year prior to the TTP’s formation. An internal civil war had begun and, by 2011, more than 35,000 people had been killed, including 3,500 security personnel.

The TTP’s disregard for state politics has also become apparent. In the 10-week period preceding the 2008 state elections, 17 suicide bombings killed nearly three hundred people, and the TTP successfully controlled the main roads entering Peshawar for months on end. After Musharraf resigned on 18th August – the presidential reins were ceded to Asif Ali Zardari – violence continued with a suicide attack in FATA in October; 85 tribal elders were killed having been labelled as government sympathisers, and over 200 injured.

But the history, leadership, and operational goals of the TTP differ greatly to that of the Afghan Taliban, and the two must not be confused. An Afghan Taliban spokesperson commented: “We don’t like to be involved with [the TTP]… we have rejected all affiliation… We have sympathy for them as Muslims, but beside that, there is nothing else between us.” The fundamental difference can be found amidst relationships with the Pakistani state: whilst the TTP principally exists to besiege state principles and structure, the Afghan Taliban have historically relied on support from the Pakistani army in their campaign to control Afghanistan and are thus strictly opposed to targeting  neighboring state institutions. Mullah Omar, supreme leader of the Kandahari Taliban, has repeatedly called for the TTP to shift their hostility away from the Pakistani state and focus it towards International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and the Afghan National Army (ANA). However, as Brigadier Muhammad Saad highlights, the TTP seldom aligns with Omar’s bearing.

Unlike the Afghan Taliban, the TTP also lacks a genuine central authority and is, on the whole, a much looser coalition of dispersed constituent groups that vary in both size and level of coordination. In 2011, the New York Times noted that the various factions were often limited to their local territories and areas of influence, lacking the ability to expand operations. But because of absent cohesion, internal strife within the TTP is recurrent. Before TTP’s second amir, Hakimullah Mehsud, was swatted from leadership by a U.S. drone in January 2010, he had experienced toil in controlling often-opposing tribal cliques. A TTP associate claimed in 2011 to the Express Tribune that Mehsud had become “just a figurhead… isolated… [and could] hardly communicate with commanders [because] the network was crumbling and infighting [was] intensifying.

Nonetheless, regional expert Ahmed Rashid upheld that, by 2011, the TTP had become a much more dangerous organisation than the Afghan Taliban due to three exclusive characteristics:                        Firstly, the Pashtun tribesmen who made up the original core of the TTP have been joined by militants from Punjab, Karachi, and other places that had been involved in the war in Kashmir. They provide a sophisticated, educated, and urban edge to the terrorist war they now waged against Pakistan’s security forces and civilians.

Second, TTP have camps in FATA, where they willingly train foreigners, especially European Muslims, and these students frequently return home to become terrorists. Moreover, the tribes in FATA have been particularly receptive to radicalization. With a population of just 3.5 million people, the area has little in way of a modern economy, education, or prospects for its youth. 46 per cent of its population commute away from the region to work, and the male literacy rate is just 15 per cent, 42 per cent lower than the national average. Accordingly, the influx after 2001 of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban into the area acted like an economic and religious engine, driving the process of extremism. By 2010, over a thousand tribal leaders had been murdered for supporting the government, and tens of thousands more had absconded.

Third, the TTP are far more ideologically extreme than their Afghan brothers and can depend on a far larger pool of recruits as fighters and suicide bombers. By 2011 the main Afghan Taliban had expressed their desire to talk with the Kabul government and the Americans, but the TTP were still adamant about Pakistan’s destruction.

Relative improvements in TTP-state relations were also dashed in April 2014 when peace-talks between the two were called-off.  A mutually approved month-long ceasefire was an inadequate barrier for a bomb attack in an Islamabad market which killed at least 20. But Pakistan’s Prime Minister remains hopeful, remarking on 6th May that his ‘talks strategy’ could “bring peace without further bloodshed.” Indeed, appeasing with the TTP seems to be a fundamental ingredient for domestic and even international peace. In July 2008,  U.S. President Obama corroborated: “make no mistake: we can’t succeed in Afghanistan or secure our homeland unless we change our Pakistan policy… the greatest threat to that security lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where terrorists train and insurgents strike into Afghanistan.

Leave a Reply