Explained: Pakistan's Taliban insurgency and the deadly cycle of violence

  • 31 Jan 2023

A TTP spokesperson has denied any hand in the suicide bomb attack on a crowded mosque in Peshawar as tension mounts between Pakistan and Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders.

( AP Archive )

When a suicide bomber struck a mosque inside a police compound in the northwestern city of Peshawar, suspicion immediately fell on the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.

In a Twitter post, a commander of the group, Sarbakaf Mohmand, claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack, one of the deadliest on security forces in recent months.

But more than 10 hours later, TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani distanced the group from the bombing, saying it was not its policy to target mosques or other religious sites, adding that those taking part in such acts could face punitive action under TTP’s policy. His statement did not address why a TTP commander had claimed responsibility for the bombing.

The TTP’s denial came after the Afghan Foreign Ministry condemned attacks on worshippers as contrary to the teachings of Islam.

Relations are already strained between Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, whom Islamabad accuse of sheltering TTP leadership and fighters after they fled nearly a decade of Pakistani counterterrorism operations. 

A look at the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which has waged an insurgency in the country for 15 years:

READ MORE: Scores dead, dozens injured in Pakistan mosque suicide attack

Origins of TTP

Angered by Islamabad’s cooperation with Washington in the so-called global “war on terror”, the TTP was officially set up by Pakistani militants in 2007 when different outlawed groups agreed to work together against Pakistan and support the Afghan Taliban, who were fighting US and NATO forces.

The TTP seeks stricter enforcement of its own interpretation of Islamic laws, the release of its members in government custody, and a reduction in Pakistani military presence in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province bordering Afghanistan that it has long used as a base.

The TTP had stepped up attacks on Pakistani soldiers and police since November last year when it unilaterally ended a ceasefire with the government after the failure of months of talks hosted by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in Kabul.

The TTP has repeatedly warned police not to participate in operations against its fighters in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

READ MORE: Pakistani Taliban refuses to extend ceasefire with government

TTP-Afghan Taliban relations

The TTP is separate from, but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban.

Officials in Islamabad allege that TTP leaders and commanders have been operating with greater freedom since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021 after the withdrawal of American troops.

TTP fighters used to hide in Pakistan’s tribal northwest and also had sanctuary in Afghanistan, but they mostly lived a fugitive existence.

After Afghan Taliban came to power, they reportedly released TTP leaders and fighters arrested by previous administrations in Kabul.

The Taliban have repeatedly said they will not allow anyone, including the TTP, to use Afghan soil for attacks against any country, including Pakistan. But Pakistani officials say there is a disconnect between the words and actions of the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistani Taliban have expressed their allegiance to the head of the Afghan Taliban, said Abdullah Khan, a senior defence analyst and managing director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies.

He added, however, that they have their own agenda and strategy.

TTP’s operations have largely targeted Pakistani forces, while the Afghan Taliban’s agenda has been to oust foreign forces from the country.

Abdullah Khan fears that Pakistan will see a surge in militant violence in the coming weeks and months.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan advocated at the start of this month for a cooperative bilateral relationship with Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, warning tensions could turn Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts into a “disastrous forever war”.

Khan blamed the government of his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, for issuing “dangerously irresponsible” statements against the Afghan Taliban authorities and causing strains in bilateral ties.

READ MORE: What options does Pakistan have to deal with the TTP?

Growing violence

Pakistan has seen numerous militant attacks in the past two decades, but there has been an uptick since November.

The Pakistani Taliban regularly carry out shootings or bombings, especially in the rugged and remote northwestern Pakistan, a former TTP stronghold.

The violence has raised fears among residents of a possible military operation in the regions of North and South Waziristan, two districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Hours after Monday’s bombing, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the independent Geo news channel that Afghan Taliban rulers must stand by their commitment to the international community not to allow anyone to use their soil for attacks against another country.

“They should honour their promises,” he said.

READ MORE: Policemen killed in northwest Pakistan in suspected terrorist attack