The Complicated Relationship Between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban
Feb 16, 2012
In late 2011, the outlook for negotiations between the United States and the Afghan Taliban began to improve. Various reports suggested that the Afghan Taliban were close to establishing a liaison office in Doha, Qatar, from where the group could negotiate with those actors involved in the Afghanistan war. At the same time that the initiative gained steam, however, the Pakistani Taliban purportedly released a dramatic statement that it would cease attacks on Pakistani targets, join forces with the Afghan Taliban and focus all of its insurgent activity on U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. Yet hours after that statement was released, a spokesman for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) rejected reports of an agreement to end attacks on Pakistani troops. Instead, several spectacular attacks were staged in the following days, including the brutal killing of 10 Pakistani Frontier Constabulary soldiers. This series of events just added to the confusion inherent in the decade-long war in Afghanistan.
This article will provide clarity on the composition of the Pakistani Taliban, identifying its various factions. It will also shed light on the relationship between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. The article concludes with a discussion of both the short- and long-term implications of the purported U.S.-Taliban peace talks on Pakistan.
The Pakistani Taliban: A United Force?
Most of the Pakistani Taliban factions operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan have sanctuaries in Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan, located in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Although nearly half of the factions are gathered under the TTP umbrella, some are loosely affiliated with the group while others have little or no association. Even the TTP itself, once united under its leader Baitullah Mehsud, is fragmented and its existing leadership regularly disagrees over control of territory.
Various Pakistani Taliban leaders also do not share the same war strategy. For example, the Pakistani Taliban faction in Bajaur Agency, led by Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, did not protest when Pakistan’s military launched a series of operations against Pakistani Taliban factions in South Waziristan Agency in October 2009. Rather, Faqir Muhammad announced that he was holding peace talks with the Pakistani government in December. Such statements regularly create confusion over the true intentions of the Pakistani Taliban. In this particular case, analysts were especially perplexed because Faqir Muhammad is, at least on paper, the deputy head of the TTP—the group that was engaged with Pakistan’s military in South Waziristan at the time. In fact, when Faqir Muhammad announced the peace agreement, other TTP leaders rejected his statement, saying that it only reflected his “personal” opinion. The spokesman of the TTP went further, arguing that Faqir had nothing to do with the organization’s central leadership.
In the same token, key Waziristan-based Pakistani Taliban leaders, such as Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir, do not approve of the TTP’s policies of waging war against Pakistani security forces. These two leaders, who are not part of the TTP, are focused on fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, they are considered the TTP’s “brothers in arms” and are described as members of the Pakistani Taliban. Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir also have peace agreements with the Pakistani government.
The two key unifying factors keeping all the disparate Pakistani Taliban factions from fighting each other are their struggle for survival in the face of numerous military operations—from the Pakistani military and U.S. drone aircraft—as well as the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The Relationship Between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban
The Afghan Taliban do not engage in attacks in Pakistan. Its efforts are focused on fighting Afghan and international troops in Afghanistan. Yet despite their differences, all of the Pakistani Taliban factions—even those that attack Pakistani interests—call the reclusive Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar their leader, or amir al-mu’minin. Their allegiance to Mullah Omar can be gauged from the late TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud’s continued insistence on being a disciple of Mullah Omar despite the Afghan Taliban distancing itself from Baitullah in 2008. Media reports at the time suggested that Baitullah was expelled from the Afghan Taliban due to his continued attacks on Pakistani interests.
The reason for this is obvious. Among the Pashtun tribesmen who make up the ranks of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, there is widespread support for the Afghan “jihad.” The Pakistani Taliban must use that support to recruit the maximum number of young men to fill their ranks.
Indeed, even after reports suggested that the Afghan Taliban distanced itself from Baitullah, he continued to pledge allegiance to Mullah Omar as he wanted to maintain his support base in his native Waziristan as well as in the rest of Pakistan. Just like his predecessor, current TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud also calls Mullah Omar his leader despite the fact that the Afghan Taliban never supported and approved attacks against Pakistani forces, the government or civilians.
From the Afghan Taliban’s perspective, despite their disapproval of Pakistani Taliban attacks inside Pakistan, they are hesitant to disown the TTP mainly because they need Pakistani Taliban support in the tribal regions to maintain their safe havens and sanctuaries, as well as to recruit Pashtun tribesmen to fight in neighboring Afghanistan.
Therefore, long-term interests as well as strategic expediencies are keeping both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban—including the TTP—together despite having different approaches to the conflict in South Asia. Various reports also suggest that the Afghan Taliban sometimes leverages the Haqqani network to help maintain peace between the TTP and other Afghan or Pakistani Taliban factions in the tribal areas.
As for Pakistan’s military apparatus, it appears to ignore the activities of groups focused on cross-border attacks in Afghanistan. The military instead concentrates its operations against those groups that primarily target Pakistani troops and civilians. The Hakimullah Mehsud-led TTP is at the top of Pakistan’s target list for this reason.
U.S.-Taliban Talks and the Implications for Pakistan
In light of the relationship between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, key questions have been raised as to how violence in Pakistan will evolve if the Afghan Taliban successfully engage in peace talks with the United States. Should peace talks occur, two theories have been presented about the future of the Pakistani Taliban.
The first theory is that violence in Pakistan will subside after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. Once the justification for violence is removed, the Pakistani Taliban will have no excuse to continue a “jihad” in Pakistan. Instead, all of the Taliban factions will work to gain leverage in a post-war Afghanistan.
The second theory is that the Pakistani Taliban will be encouraged by the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops, and will intensify their efforts to gain a share of power in Pakistan’s government along the lines of their Afghan counterparts. Proponents of this theory argue that the Pakistani Taliban have already spread their influence from the tribal regions into Pakistan’s urban areas. They have become emboldened and will not disband easily. Although they may temporarily cease their insurgent activities following the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces from Afghanistan, in the long-term they will demand a share of power from Pakistan’s government either by nonviolent (political) or violent (insurgency) means.
In the meantime, Pakistan will not relinquish its long-term interests in Afghanistan and the region, and it will likely continue to view the Afghan Taliban as one of the country’s strategic assets—even though its influence on the group is limited. Indeed, although the different militant groups and their various factions often create problems for Pakistan, such “follies” are often ignored to maintain sight of the “bigger picture”: to use the Afghan Taliban to counter-balance the anti-Pakistan elements in a future Afghan government; to prevent countries such as India and Iran from gaining too much political influence in Afghanistan; to use Pakistani jihadist groups as a bargain chip in negotiations with India over Kashmir; to fend off Indian interference in Baluchistan and northern Pakistan; and finally to keep a check on Pashtun nationalism.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor with RFE/RL’s Mashaal Radio in Prague, Czech Republic. Besides working in Afghanistan as Editor at Pajhwok Afghan News from 2005-2008, Mr. Khattak worked with Pakistani English daily newspapers covering the situation in KP and FATA. He also worked for Sunday Times London and contributed articles to the Christian Science Monitor. In 2010, his paper on the situation in Swat, “The Battle for Pakistan: Swat Valley,” was published by the New America Foundation.
 Matthew Rosenberg and Sharifullah Sahak, “Karzai Agrees to Let Taliban Set Up Office in Qatar,” New York Times, December 27, 2011.
 The statement reportedly had the support of the Haqqani network, the Maulvi Nazir group, the Hakimullah Mehsud group, and the Maulana Waliur Rahman group. See “Reports: Afghan, Pakistani Militants Unite to Fight US-led Troops in Afghanistan,” Voice of America, January 2, 2012.
 Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a conglomerate of several militant factions based in Waziristan and headed by Hakimullah Mehsud.
 “Bodies of 10 FC Soldiers Recovered from Orakzai,” Dawn, January 9, 2012.
 Zia Ur Rehman, “Karachi’s New Terrorist Groups,” The Friday Times, January 6, 2012.
 The present central leader of TTP is Hakimullah Mehsud. He was recently reported dead in a drone strike in Waziristan but the report was instantly rejected by the Taliban. For details, see “Pakistani Taliban Leader Killed in U.S. Drone Attack: Report,” Associated Press, January 16, 2012.
 Zia Ur Rehman, “Taliban Leader ‘In Talks with Govt,’” The Friday Times, December 16-12, 2011.
 “Pakistani Taliban Spokesman Denies Group in Peace Talks,” New York Daily News, December 11, 2011.
 Personal interview, Rahimullah Yusufzai, January 2012.
 Personal interview, Afrasiab Khattak, January 2012.
 Following the increasing number of attacks against civilians, mosques and markets in Pakistan in 2007-2009, the Afghan Taliban asked their Pakistani counterparts not to carry out attacks in Pakistan and instead focus on “jihad” in Afghanistan. When the attacks continued, the Afghan Taliban reportedly announced the expulsion of Baitullah Mehsud from their fold, although they later denied this. See personal interview, Rahimullah Yusufzai, January 2012; “‘Afghan Taliban Does Not Support Militant Activity in Pak,’” Press Trust of India, January 29, 2008.
 Personal interview, Afrasiab Khattak, January 2012.
 Pakistan’s intelligence agencies do not control the Afghan Taliban; however, they clearly have some influence over the group. The same is true about the so-called “good” Pakistani Taliban led by commanders Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir.
 No government, not even the governments of the mujahidin and the pro-Pakistan Taliban, accepted the 1893-era Durand Line dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the past few years, the disappointment among the nationalists and secular elements of the Pakistan army and its security agencies have increased, and a vast majority of people, particularly the youth, are now looking beyond the Durand Line. The secular and nationalist elements have also suffered the most at the hands of Taliban militants who are believed to be indirectly supported and propped up by the Pakistani secret services. To keep them and their nationalism in check, the presence of Taliban on the scene is being seen as the easiest tool for the state of Pakistan because the Taliban provide a cross-border outlet for extremist Pashtuns.