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Pakistani Taliban move into new territories

Zia Ur Rehman in Karachi
May 3, 2023

Terror attacks have spiked in parts of Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province — a region that had hosted the Taliban's top leadership prior to the fall of Kabul in 2021.

A policeman stands guard in front of a mosque in Quetta, Pakistan
The TTP has been responsible for many deadly attacks across Pakistan in recent years Image: DW

Since its formation in 2007, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the deadliest of all local militant groups in Pakistan, has largely operated and conducted its terror attacks in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, the southern port city of Karachi, and some parts of the eastern Punjab province.

Until recently, the outfit mostly refrained from carrying out attacks in Balochistan's Pashtun-populated areas stretching from Quetta, the provincial capital, to the towns of Chaman and Killa Saifullah, which border Afghanistan, and to Zhob district, which is next to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

But now these areas have also been witnessing militant attacks, which suggests that the TTP changed its strategy for the region after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, experts and officials told DW.

"The fall of Kabul has not only strengthened the TTP in terms of its ability to conduct terror attacks in the country but also encouraged the group to expand its area of operation to Balochistan, which is outside its traditional stronghold — Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the northwestern tribal areas," Shahzada Zulfiqar, a Quetta-based journalist who covers security issues, told DW.

Who are the TTP?

The TTP comprises several hard-line Sunni insurgent and sectarian groups who have waged a murderous campaign against the Pakistani state since 2007. Although the outfit is not directly linked with the Afghan Taliban, it pledges allegiance to the group in Kabul.

One of the TTP's primary demands has been for Pakistan's government and military to reduce their presence in the country's northwest.

The TTP frequently carries out attacks in the region, where government control remains patchy.

The group has also been responsible for many attacks across the country, killing thousands of civilians and security forces. 

The deadliest to date was a 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar that killed at least 150 people, mostly schoolchildren.

Pakistan banned the TTP in 2008. 

Since then, the nation's security forces have launched several military offensives in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The TTP has been declared a terrorist organization by the United Nations and the United States. 

Pakistan Taliban step up attacks against police

Recent increase in terror attacks

On April 11, Pakistani security forces raided a TTP hideout in Kuchlak, a town situated in Quetta's suburbs, triggering a shootout that killed four officers and a militant commander, officials said.

On April 9, the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack on a police team in the Kuchlak area that killed two policemen. On April 4, the Islamist group said its militants attacked a police post in Kuchlak with laser guns, killing one law enforcement officer and injuring two others.

In its quarterly report, the TTP, whose commanders and members are mostly ethnic Pashtuns, claimed that in the first three months of this year, it carried out five attacks in Quetta, two attacks in Pishin and one attack in Balochistan's Killa Abdullah districts.

It also claimed that it launched 12 attacks in Balochistan's Pashtun region in 2022, barring the four months from May to September when Afghanistan's Taliban rulers brokered a cease-fire deal between the TTP and Islamabad.

On November 28, 2022, two days after the TTP unilaterally ended the cease-fire with the government, its members carried out a suicide attack on policemen escorting a polio vaccination team in Quetta, killing four people and wounding more than 30.

TTP's internal publications reveal that the group has recently structured a separate organizational chapter, "Zhob province," for Balochistan's Pashtun region.

A sanctuary for Taliban leaders

After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, several senior Taliban leaders fled the country and established the group's governing body in exile, called the "Quetta Shura." However, Pakistani authorities always denied the presence of Taliban leaders in Quetta and surrounding areas.

But after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, almost all Taliban leaders reportedly moved back to Kabul to assume responsibilities in the new government.

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"The TTP did not disturb the region's security as a result of a clear direction from the Taliban leadership, who were living there with their families, running their madrassas and mosques, and command-and-control centers," Qari Syed Jabbar, a madrassa teacher in Kuchlak, who is familiar with Taliban networks in the region, told DW.

"But now when Taliban leaders have returned to Afghanistan, the TTP has made the area its new battleground against the Pakistani state," Jabbar added.

In Kuchlak, where the TTP has recently carried out several attacks, Taliban Supreme Leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada taught for more than 10 years in a religious seminary. In August 2019, Akhundzada's younger brother was killed in a bomb blast in the seminary mosque. Similarly, Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai, the Taliban regime's chief justice, reportedly ran a madrassa in Quetta city.

TTP expansion

Although Balochistan has been in the grip of a separatist insurgency since early 2004, the TTP's recent ingress is further threatening the province's already tenuous security situation, experts said.

Islamabad and Beijing have already expressed concerns about the security of the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in different parts of the country, but mainly Balochistan.

Experts are of the view that the TTP is making efforts to broaden its appeal beyond the ethnic Pashtun community and is trying to lure Baloch separatists and other groups.

On April 12, the TTP claimed that two new militant groups from Balochistan's Quetta and Kalat districts joined its ranks.

"If this trend continues and the TTP is able to further expand its influence among Baloch separatists, it could significantly enhance the group's operational capacity and make it more difficult to defeat militarily," according to Tameem Bahiss, an independent analyst focusing on security affairs of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The TTP threat to Pakistan is significant, and it is growing," said Madiha Afzal, a scholar at the Brookings Institution focusing on Pakistan.

"The TTP have been emboldened by a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the Pakistani state's shaky, uncertain approach to the group in recent years. Pakistan has tried negotiating with the group many times over the years; negotiations always fail because the group is existentially opposed to the Pakistani state and constitution," she told DW.

"The only option the state has is to launch an extensive military operation against the group, as it did in 2014, but that is complicated this time around by the fact that the TTP can cross the border into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan with a growing and hard-to-control terrorism problem on its hands."

Additional reporting by Haroon Janjua, DW reporter in Islamabad.

Edited by: Shamil Shams