It was a quiet Sunday on 24 June 2007 when vigilante groups from Red Mosque or Lal Masjid raided a Chinese massage parlour and acupuncture clinic in sector F-8, Islamabad, and abducted seven Chinese staff and two Pakistani policemen. The militants included ten burqa-clad women armed with batons, part of a “vice and virtue” squad that took their victims to the Jamia Hafsa madrassa. Jamia Hafsa spokesman soon announced to local press that “this place was used as a brothel house and despite our warnings the administration failed to take any action, so we decided to take action on our own.” The Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Luo Zhaohui, demanded that the Pakistan government take all measures to secure urgent release of the hostages, and so China mounted huge pressure on the Pakistani establishment.
On 3 July, Pakistani security forces surrounded the Lal Masjid complex and ‘Operation Silence’ began. Seven days later, there were more than 100 people dead, hundreds surrendered, including many of the baton-wielding, burqa-clad female vigilante troops. It took more than twenty hours for the Pakistani commandos to battle their way through the basements, bunkers and tunnels of the heavily fortified enclave, guarded by militants armed with automatic weapons. Of the 15 non-Afghan foreigners killed, 12 were Uighurs. Maulana Abdul Rashid ‘Ghazi’, an ethnic Baloch from the Sadwani clan of the Mazari tribe, who ran this institution, was also killed.
Red Mosque and the Jamia Hafsa madrassa are located only a few blocks from the Pakistani Presidential Palace, and at a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI.
There were several bomb blasts and suicide attacks throughout Pakistan as a reaction to ‘Operation Silence’, most of them in the Pashtun dominated north western Pakistan. The crackdown also galvanised many Pashtun tribal militants, especially in South Waziristan, Mohmand, Bajaur, and the Swat district to unify their efforts for implementation of Sharia.The outcome was the establishment of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud (an ex-student of the Red Mosque) at the end of 2007 as a unified jihadi entity to fight the ‘apostate’ Pakistani State. Most of the deadly retaliatory attacks were initially carried out by the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, killing over 700 security personnel in a matter of days. In Mohmand Agency, the TTP gained huge momentum after the Lal Masjid operation. The militants created a replica of the Lal Masjid and openly challenged the Pakistani army to raid it— several operations of the security forces were repelled by the militants.
In no time, the TTP emerged as one of Pakistan’s deadliest militant organisations. It maintained close ties with al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and a host of other militant groups including the India focussed Punjabi militants, and even Daesh (ISIS). The TTP’s most deadly attacks include a 2011 assault on the Pakistani navy’s largest airbase; 2014 attack on Karachi airport; claims on assasination of ex-Prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and in 2014, a massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed 150 people, mostly students.
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Crackdown in Pakistan
The Pakistani State has responded to this existential threat with a slew of measures that include military operations and peace initiatives — from signing peace agreements in May 2007 to forming a committee to initiate dialogue with various militant groups in 2008, to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif claiming negotiations in 2013. However, these initiatives had limited impact as the TTP was also important to the Afghan Taliban, and was formed of multiple semi-independent factions, unlike its more centrally organised neighbour.
The TTP carried out strikes outside the tribal areas, and its daring on Karachi airport in the summer of 2014 prompted the Pakistan army to launch operation Zarb-e-Azb, named after the sword of Prophet Muhammad. It virtually dismantled TTP and its support structure in tribal belts, including its sleeper-cells across Pakistani cities, with the group losing fighters in tens of thousands. The outfit also lost its territory and resources.
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American intervention and resurgence
US drone strikes, concentrated on Waziristan, also helped weaken the movement, eliminating key figures in the TTP leadership.
On 5 August 2009, Baitullah Mehsud, the leader and one of the founding members of the TTP was killed in a US drone strike in South Waziristan Agency (SWA); on 22 August 2009, Hakimullah Mehsud was made the leader of TTP. Subsequently, on 1 November 2013, Mehsud was killed in another drone strike in North Waziristan Agency (NWA).
After Mehsud’s killing, a dispute for succession arose between the Mehsuds and the Punjabi Taliban and the TTP broke into factions. The years that followed saw a number of TTP leaders being killed.
But the terror outfit resurged yet again after Noor Wali Mehsud became its chief. Wali, who served as the deputy of Baitullah Mehsud, as a judge (qazi) of a TTP court and briefly as manager of the group’s media operations, brought different factions together and moved the base from Eastern Afghanistan to the Southeast Paktika province closer to the borders of Pakistan’s Waziristan.
Wali has written about his aim to create a larger platform for all of the jihadist forces fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which he termed Ittehad-e-Bain ul Mujahdeen. Factional fighting within TTP has nearly ended now, and TTP-aligned terrorist entities are closely coordinating their efforts. Previously, the TTP factions like the Sajna group, Omar Khalid Khurasani’s Jamaat ul Ahrar, Mukarram Khan’s Hizb ul Ahrar, and others continued fighting one another after the death of Hakeemullah Mehsud. This has stopped now.
Noor Wali has also authored a 588-page book that was released in November 2017, entitled Inqilab-e-Mehsud, South Waziristan: Firangi Raj se Amreeki Samraj Tak (Mehsud Revolution, South Waziristan: From British Raj to American Imperialism). In this book, he claims the responsibility for carrying out the assassination of the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.
Al Qaida played a role in advising and guiding Noor Wali. Evidence for which did emerge from the Abbottabad papers seized from the residence of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
The Afghan Taliban, after taking over Kabul, released TTP’s founding deputy emir Maulvi Faqir Mohammad among hundreds of other prisoners. The TTP’s leadership projects the Afghan Taliban as a role model before its fighters, calling for an all-out war against the Pakistani State. They tell their fighters that a persistent struggle can bring victory like the one achieved in Afghanistan. Pakistan has witnessed a barrage of attacks by TTP fighters since then.
Reports of negotiations with the terror group, which was announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan, has shocked the Pakistani people. With the Haqqani network now in power in Afghanistan, both sides agreed to a month-long ceasefire agreement, however the TTP announced an end to the ceasefire, accusing authorities of reneging on promises made in the peace talks.
The ceasefire had come into effect on 9 November last year but after a month, the TTP announced “it is not possible for the ceasefire to continue” under current circumstances. The terror outfit also said that an initial agreement that guaranteed the release of 102 TTP prisoners in Pakistani custody by 1 November was not followed through. It also accused Pakistani security forces of ceasefire violation.
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Road ahead for Pakistan
With the breakdown of the ceasefire and talks, Pakistan is realising that the Afghan Taliabn and Haqqanis are not cooperating as expected to rein in the TTP, neither has the funding of the organisation reduced after the collapse of the Afghan government and US’ withdrawal. The TTP has developed deep relations with the Punjabi jihadi groups, al-Qaida, criminal gangs in Pakistan, Baloch and Sindhi nationalist fighters, and even an understanding with Daesh or ISKP, (with which it competes).
An all out operation like the Zarb e Azab seems to be out of question today as a large portion of the army comes from the FATA region. The US drone support is also not available. The TTP, calling the Pakistani State as apostate and the army as colonial, is gathering considerable support in the Pakistani mainland. An armed conflict may result in daring retaliatory attacks in the mainland outside Waziristan and FATA, using the leftover arms and ammunition smuggled to Pakistan after the hasty US withdrawal. There have been targetted assasinations of key TTP functionaries in Afghanistan recently, like that of Mohammed K horasani, the TTP spokesperson, and commander Daud Mehshud, which have given Pakistan temporary respite. Pressure on TTP will also result in its fighters migrating to the more dangerous ISIS-K, which has larger implications for security across the world. Al Qaeda is also supporting the outfit with funding and guidance to create a safe haven in Waziristan.
Pakistan now faces an existential crisis, with support for fundamentalists increasing in the heartland and options for a military solution reducing by the day.
Brijesh Singh @brijeshbsingh is an author and IPS officer. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)