The TTP’s internal weakness and the Peshawar school attack

People who really understand Pakistan are trying to make some sense of Tuesday’s horrific school attack by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Ostensibly the attack was meant as retaliation for a recent Pakistani military campaign in Waziristan that has reportedly killed hundreds of Taliban fighters (and, undoubtedly, a considerable number of children in its own right). But there is an emerging notion that it may have been as much about inter-Taliban politics as about that military campaign. Pakistani journalist Daud Khattak explains how the two are intertwined:

The TTP has been showing signs of weakness ever since the killing of its commander, Hakeemullah Mehsud, in a drone strike in November 2013. The elevation of Mullah Fazlullah, a non-tribal Taliban commander, as chief of the network further increased the divisions among different factions within the TTP that finally led to its fragmentation.

And the most serious blow came when the Pakistani army launched the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, the last stronghold of the Pakistan-based militants. Notwithstanding the allegations of the selective approach towards the Taliban by the Pakistani army (i.e. singling out the “bad” Taliban and ignoring the “good”), the TTP is the hardest hit militant group so far.

Insurgencies and terrorist networks don’t seem to weather change very well (witness the flood of splinter groups that formed in Northern Ireland when the Provisional IRA decided to stop fighting and pursue a negotiated settlement with the UK), which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. When these groups face a change in leadership it’s usually unexpected (“terrorism” isn’t a field whose practitioners generally die peacefully of old age), which means the succession can be, and often is, disputed. Even when the succession is smooth, splinter groups may break off of the main group as the new leader tries (and sometimes fails) to build relationships with his commanders. What is ISIS, for example, if not a group that splintered off from OG Al Qaeda because its leader ultimately rejected Ayman al-Zawahiri’s leadership? Would ISIS exist today as an independent terror network if Osama bin Laden were still alive? It’s not so obvious, is it? So when Mehsud was killed last year, he was succeeded by this Mullah Fazlullah over some objections. Operation Zarb-e-Azb started pummeling the TTP in the midst of this succession crisis and exacerbated the fissures within the group; at least one commander elected to quit Fazlullah’s TTP and form his own group, the TTP-JA.

That last piece, by analyst Arif Rafiq, speculated that elements of the Afghan intelligence service could have been involved in the attack as well; the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) has had a long-standing close relationship with both Afghanistan’s Taliban (the two groups are more or less entirely separate despite both calling themselves “Taliban”) and the related but autonomous Haqqani Network, and Afghanistan’s intel service has apparently decided that turnabout is fair play and is working with the TTP. At any rate, the Peshawar attack was meant to send a message not just to Islamabad, but to any other would-be splinter groups within the TTP, that Fazlullah is capable of leading the group and pulling off major attacks against its enemies.

Except that’s not really what it proved. Peshawar is pretty close to the Federally Administered Tribal Area that includes Waziristan, so it’s a target of opportunity for the TTP, and a school is about as soft a target as you can imagine. This wasn’t a show of strength; it was a demonstration of weakness that would be laughable if it weren’t so horrifying. It’s also left the TTP virtually isolated, condemned by everybody from new Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai to the Afghan Taliban, who called the attack “un-Islamic.” Pakistan’s security establishment seems to be uniting, at least for the time being, around the notion that the Taliban threat must be eliminated. Political opposition leader Imran Khan declared an end to the national protests that have gripped the country since August, which will only enhance Islamabad’s ability to respond to Tuesday’s attack. U.S.-Pakistani relations were already improving because of Operation Zarb-e-Azb; that will likely only deepen now. And the TTP’s support from Afghanistan may also be lost; new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was already more inclined to work with Islamabad than Hamid Karzai had been, and this attack may spur Pakistan to increase its training of the Afghan army in order to deny the TTP any safe haven on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. Even India reached out to Pakistan in the aftermath of the attack, though that era of goodwill lasted about a day. If the TTP had been trying to lose every supporter it had, it couldn’t have done a much better job than it’s done. So even if this attack was not a sign of an already weakened TTP, its backlash is likely to weaken the group considerably.

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