While efforts for peace between the Pakistani government and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have resulted in an — albeit uneasy — ceasefire, TTP members continue cross-border activities, namely propaganda and proselytising, from their refuges in Afghanistan. And the Pakistani border fence as well as restrictions imposed by the Afghan Taliban have only a limited impact on this, as exclusive information obtained by the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) shows.
TTP commander Abu Hamid peering through binoculars to the disputed Afghan-Pakistani border (Franz J. Marty, 2nd of September 2022)
Standing on an elevation in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, Abu Hamid points to the mountains on the horizon, only about 3.5 to 4.5 kilometres away. «Atop the ridge on this section is the Pakistani border fence», he says. Abu Hamid is not his real name, but a randomly chosen pseudonym, as the local commander of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who briefly hosted the Fellow of the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) in early September 2022, requested anonymity.
«We adhere to the ceasefire ordered by our [TTP] leaders», he further elaborated, crouching down beside a boulder on which he put his AK-74 rifle, peering through binoculars to the fence that separates him from his homeland. «But we still cross the border and are active on the other side», he added.
The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan) was established in 2007 and united an array of local Pashtun tribesmen who inhabit the rugged borderlands in northwestern Pakistan and who had, in the wake of the terror attacks of 9/11 and the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, taken up arms against the Pakistani government with the goal to replace it with a (more) Islamic regime. Their enemies, first and foremost the governments of Pakistan and the United States of America, have designated the TTP a terrorist organisation. TTP members, on the other hand, see their armed struggle as a righteous jihad (holy war) against what they perceive an incursion into their homelands that used to be semi-autonomous and a legitimate defence of their traditional and religious values. The truth, as so often, is complicated and lies somewhere in between.
In any event, counter-insurgency operations of the Pakistani Army, in particular Operation Zarb-e Azb in 2014, drove thousands of tribesmen and their families, including regular civilians and TTP members, from their homes in the Pakistani tribal areas over the nearby disputed Afghan-Pakistani border, where they found refuge. Pashtun hospitality and the fact that their hosts on the Afghan side were not only fellow Pashtuns, but often belong to the same tribes as them, made this easier. Abu Hamid is one of those muhajireen, the Arabic word for ‘refugees’ also used in the local Pashto language. Since he has been displaced from his home in the Pakistani tribal areas years ago, he lives in the border areas of the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, where SIGA visited him. The name of the exact place where Abu Hamid resides is deliberately not mentioned, but only about a one to two hour drive from the main road in Kunar.
«In this area, there are about 50 TTP houses», Abu Hamid replied when asked about the size of his group. «And in each house, there are two to three armed men; all together, they form five delgais [fighting units]», he added. This amounts to 100 to 150 fighters in a place right next to the disputed border.
An Uneasy Truce
The ceasefire that Abu Hamid mentioned was first announced by the TTP leadership on 29th of April 2022 in connexion with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr; initially
declared to last only 10 days, it was later prolonged, at first until the end of May 2022, but eventually, during the first days of June 2022, indefinitely. It is supposed to be a confidence
building measure in ongoing efforts for peace between the militant group and the Pakistani government. Such efforts at reconciliation, including ceasefires, are not new, but past iterations have
always fallen apart rather sooner than later (see e.g. here). Indeed, the referenced months-long ceasefire
is arguably the biggest success in attempts to reconcile the TTP and the Pakistani government.
TTP statement dated 2nd of June 2022, confirming peace talks with the Pakistani government and announcing an indefinite extension of the ceasefire (source: https://twitter.com/TGhazniwal/status/1532424876535029760)
However, the mentioned ceasefire and current state of peace negotiations is far from rosy. «They still regularly fire over the border», Abu Hamid said about the Pakistani army. He pointed to two apparently abandoned hamlets located between the elevation he stood on and the Pakistani border fence on the horizon. «These houses were inhabited by other [Pakistani] muhajireen, but they had to flee when their houses were targeted by Pakistani mortar shelling», Abu Hamid elaborated. He did not indicate a time for the shelling and this might have happened before the truce. However, shots ringing out through the night in early September 2022 apparently confirmed that the Pakistani army still uses live ammunition at, and likely over, the border.
On the other hand, starting on 2nd of September 2022, the TTP have again begun to claim attacks inside Pakistan; by the end of September 2022, there had already been at least 39 such claims and there is currently no sign that such attacks will stop. They concerned mostly small armed assaults on and assassinations of Pakistani security forces. The TTP has described these acknowledged acts of violence as «defensive» in nature. Echoing this, Abu Hamid also asserted that the ceasefire would leave him and his men «the right to defend [themselves]». At the time of SIGA’s visit in the first days of September 2022, right when the claiming of «defensive» attacks by the TTP started, Abu Hamid did not mention that he or his men had conducted any such attacks; it remained unclear whether this might have changed in the meantime. In general, it is also difficult if not almost impossible to determine whether attacks in Pakistan were launched from the Afghan or the Pakistani side of the border.
That said, reports from different sources that are seemingly corroborated by the lack of news from the ongoing efforts for negotiations between the TTP and the Pakistani government suggest that the peace talks have effectively come to a stall and that violence is again on the rise.
Be that as it may, Abu Hamid and his men have never sat idly by.
Subversive Cross-Border Movements
«We regularly go back and forth across the border», Abu Hamid insisted, indicating that they have always done so. «The border fence is complete here, but we cut holes in the fence and cross through them.» This assertion was supported by the fact that the SIGA-Fellow has himself seen that an Afghan, apparently in a private capacity, brought some bolt cutters as gifts to Abu Hamid. They looked old and rusty, but one man assured that they were of the best quality — «American-made», he said, without irony — and recently re-sharpened.
Asked about how easy or difficult it is to cross the border through the fence, a young man who sat cross-legged beside Abu Hamid in a modest mud-wall mosque near Abu Hamid’s house only muttered
«very hard». Later, on the elevation, Abu Hamid pointed out the main reason why: «the [Pakistani] fauj (army) has border posts along the fence; here, about one every 100 metres or so.
And they shoot at anybody who comes close.» He cited two specific examples from the past months in which Pakistani border forces allegedly shot two civilians near the fence: one a man who was
said to only have collected firewood; the other reportedly a shepherd. Neither case could be independently verified. «In spite of this, we sneak through holes in the fence that we cut between
border posts; we cross in the darkness of night or during daylight under other cover, for example provided by woods», Abu Hamid stated. «And we watch the Pakistanis. Just like they watch us», he
added, while again peering through his binoculars to the border.
Pakistani border fence and border post on a ridge in the distance as seen from a place in Kunar Province, Afghanistan (Franz J. Marty, 2nd of September 2022)
Once on the Pakistani side, Abu Hamid’s men are not hiding in the mountains but go to villages. «We invite people to our cause, recruit them», Abu Hamid asserted. «We especially visit men who serve in the Pakistani government and tell them to abandon their work and to stop helping the infidels [i.e. the as infidel viewed Pakistani government]», he added. Abu Hamid and his men did not indicate how exactly they do this and how successful or unsuccessful they are with it.
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) who is closely following the TTP, corroborated though that the activities described by Abu Hamid and his men are no singular case. «There are illegal crossings of the border fence between Southeastern Afghanistan and North and South Waziristan in Pakistan and TTP members who cross there proselytise and conduct other propaganda activities on the Pakistani side», Mir told SIGA.
Restrictions Imposed by the Afghan Taliban
For the Afghan Taliban, the activities of TTP members from Afghan soil are a sore subject. Regularly, they deny the mere existence, let alone actions, of TTP members in Afghanistan (see e.g. here) and at best display them only as refugees, not fighters (see e.g. here).
However, in practice, the Afghan Taliban have — since they have retaken power in Afghanistan in August 2021 — taken several measures to restrict TTP members in an apparent attempt to prove that they can prevent Afghanistan from posing a threat to any other country. The only announced and publicised of these measures is the brokering of the above-mentioned peace negotiations between the TTP and the Pakistani government and the uneasy ceasefire that this spawned. The Afghan Taliban first officially acknowledged this on 18th of May 2022 displaying themselves as brokers for much needed peace, but have with near certainty mediated such talks well before then.
In addition and without any announcements, the Afghan Taliban also took other, more concrete measures towards TTP activities in or from Afghanistan. «They ordered us to not attack any Pakistani border outposts», Abu Hamid told SIGA when asked about whether the Afghan Taliban impose any restrictions on him and his men. «We adhere to it», he added, which seems to be confirmed by the fact that clashes along the border, while existing, remain rare.
Moreover, there have been reports about the relocation of TTP members from border areas ordered by the Afghan Taliban. However, while reports about the resettlement of members of Lashkar-e Islam, another small Pakistani jihadist group that is present in Afghanistan but which is not part of the TTP, were confirmed by several sources (see e.g. here), the alleged move of TTP members could not be verified. One well-placed source even credibly disputed that the Afghan Taliban had relocated TTP members, adding that reports to the contrary incorrectly conflate resettled Lashkar-e Islam members and some other non-TTP affiliated tribesmen with TTP members.
On a less incisive level, there have been credible reports that the Afghan Taliban register TTP members on Afghan soil and only allow them to be armed if they get a respective permit.
Be that as it may, Abu Hamid stated that, although the Afghan Taliban restrict him and other TTP members to some extent, they do not prevent or prohibit covert crossings through the border fence or activities of the TTP members once well inside Pakistan.
The Afghan Taliban’s Dilemma
The above described behaviour of the Afghan Taliban is arguably a consequence of a dilemma which was exemplified in the following brief conversation that Abu Hamid had with an Afghan Talib:
«For now, the most important thing is the survival of the Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan] [i.e. the Taliban government in Afghanistan]; therefore, groups like the TTP have to show restraint to not endanger the Emirate», the Afghan Talib told Abu Hamid. He obviously meant that cross-border jihadist activities emanating from Afghanistan like the ones the TTP conduct further undermine the Afghan Taliban’s stance in the eyes of the international community and might, in case of a major attack or in the long term, pose a serious threat to the continuation of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
«It is true, the survival of the [Afghan Taliban’s] Emirate is of great importance», Abu Hamid agreed. «However, jihad [holy war] is for all Muslims — and the Emirate [the Afghan Taliban] also has to support other Muslims in their jihad», Abu Hamid told the Afghan Talib. This quite clearly indicated that the TTP might accept some restrictions, but not impositions that would prevent them from continuing their jihad to reach their goals in Pakistan, namely the establishment of a (more) Islamic government there.
The Afghan Talib did not respond. The reasons were likely that he did not know how to bridge this gap between realistic outlook and ideological imperative.