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Why the Pakistan army can't subdue the TTP

January 06, 2015 11:32 IST

Image: A Pakistani soldier takes up a position above a road near the school. Photograph: Khuram Parvez/ReutersWhat Pakistan faces in the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is virulent insurgency and terrorism, fuelled by its association with Al Qaeda, says Wilson John.

Much has been written about the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, accused of the savage attack on school children in Peshawar on December 16. But only a few of the writings have attempted to examine a critical question -- why does the TTP target the Pakistani State and its army? A coherent answer to this question would call for an objective assessment of the nature and character of this group.

Such an assessment has become all the more important in view of the Peshawar attack three weeks ago. The TTP does pose a serious threat to the state of Pakistan, in ways not appreciated fully even after the attack.

A failure to assess the nature of the threat the TTP poses to Pakistan could have serious consequences for India and the region as a whole.

A starting point could be the genesis of the TTP. Three events in essence shaped the group's ideology, character and formation in December 2007. First and foremost was the Afghan jihad where many of the tribal leaders and men were recruited as mujahideen, funded and armed by the Saudi-US combine and trained by the Pakistan army.

The Afghan battlefield also brought the tribal leaders close to foreign fighters, notably the Arabs, many of whom later became part of Al Qaeda.

Second was the events following the Al Qaeda attack on the US in September 2001. In the US counter-offensive launched in Afghanistan, a large number of Al Qaeda and Taliban men and leaders fled to Pakistan and many of them found easy refuge in the tribal areas, thanks to their close relations with the Haqqani Network, various tribal leaders and the Pakistan army.

The third, perhaps the most relevant in the present context, was the series of military offensives launched by the Pakistan army in the tribal areas since 2002 and the launching of drone attacks by the US in 2004.

Both the military offensives carried out by the Pakistan army and the US drone attacks have killed several thousand people in the tribal areas dominated by Pashtun communities. There is no record of the deaths in any of these offensives.

Some estimates suggest that over 3,000 people have died in the US drone attacks with only a small percentage identified as terrorists. A large number of the dead, and injured, remain anonymous and a significant percentage of this anonymous figure were civilians -- men, women and children.

There is no figure to match the Pakistan army military actions in the area since 2002. What is known is the intensity of these offensives -- the military used gunships, combat jets and field artillery to kill, to destroy and raze villages after villages in the area. The quantum of destruction could be gauged from the number of people displaced due to these operations.

In 2008, the United Nations reported close to eight million displaced persons -- men, women and children forced to flee their homes and take refuge in tents put up by distant places. The latest military operation, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which began in June 2014, has already displaced close to one million people.

It would be amiss not to mention the Lal Masjid episode of July 2007 when the Pakistan army launched a short but bloody attack on the mosque in Islamabad to neutralise a group of students and clerics who were demanding an imposition of Sharia in the country and had taken to the streets.

A few hundred students and others died in the offensive (the army estimated a little over a hundred while the other estimates put the figure at over 300), many of them were from the erstwhile North West Frontier Province and the tribal areas.

It is against this backdrop that several tribal groups, till then fighting against the foreign forces in Afghanistan, decided to come together under an umbrella group called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. It was not a splinter group of the Afghan Taliban nor was it directly associated with Al Qaeda. It had no connection with the Haqqani Network either.

The evolution of violent armed groups in the region post-2001 has been so complex and opaque it would be deceptive to believe that TTP has had no association with any of these groups.

This complex nature of violence is reflected in the TTP's survival against compelling odds and Pakistan's struggles to contain the group. The TTP is not a big group with its cadre strength between 5,000 and 30,000, a large number of them have been killed in Pakistan military offensives and drone attacks since 2002; much of its top leadership has been killed in drone attacks and it gets no support from any State agency, be it in Pakistan or outside.

The group not only faces the might of the Pakistan army but also several terrorist groups, patronised by the Pakistan army, like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, which have been used to counter them. The group, despite these challenges, managed to attack Karachi airport early last year and carry out a suicide bombing at the Wagah border last November.

The Pakistan army's struggles to contain the group could be gauged from the series of military offensives it had launched in the past to destroy the TTP, but with little success.

Apart from occasional ceasefires, the TTP has consistently attacked military assets in different provinces, including Punjab. The TTP also kidnapped soldiers from the army as well as the paramilitary force, the Frontier Corps, and beheaded a few of them.

One of the key reasons for the TTP's survival has been Pakistan's policy of using terrorist groups as instruments of State policy. In this context, the Pakistan army's protection of the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban as 'strategic assets' has helped the TTP to retain its sanctuary and its attack capabilities. The areas dominated by the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban have provided TTP with 'strategic depth.'

Whenever the Pakistan military stepped up its offensive in the tribal areas, the TTP found it convenient to move into the Taliban-controlled areas. There is substantial evidence that the Haqqani Network has also helped the TTP to survive the military onslaught which, in any case, has been selective and hence ineffective. For instance, before launching the current operation, the Haqqanis were alerted and moved to safer locations.

Another important reason for the TTP's survival has been its vast network of supporters in other parts of Pakistan, particularly Karachi which is considered to be the city with the largest number of Pashtuns.

The TTP has drawn its cadres and much of its financial resources from Karachi where it has a stake in the booming business of kidnapping for ransom.

Likewise, the TTP also has a working relationship with extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which are also active in the criminal world in Karachi and other major cities of Pakistan. The LJ, based in Punjab, incidentally openly campaigned for Nawaz Sharif during the 2013 general election.

It is fairly apparent that the TTP benefits in many other ways from its association with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This becomes apparent from Pakistan's noticeable failure to persuade the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban to keep the TTP in check or help the army to destroy the group.

This failure could also indicate the limited leverage the army has on its 'proxy' groups, which are emboldened by the impending departure of the foreign forces from Afghanistan. Both the Haqqanis and the Afghan Taliban, like the TTP, are Pashtun groups.

What Pakistan today faces in the TTP is a hybrid group, a mixture of virulent insurgency and terrorism, fuelled by its association with Al Qaeda. The Peshawar attack has added another dimension -- the brutality of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Image: A Pakistani soldier takes up a position above a road near the Peshawar school. Photograph: Khuram Parvez/Reuters

Wilson John is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Wilson John