The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), sometimes called the Pakistan Taliban, is gaining new ground or is on its last legs, depending on who you talk to. Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik insists that the TTP is “on the verge of collapse” given that its channel of funding is effectively being choked by the government.
“They earned most of their money from bank robberies and kidnappings, and we have contained those,” maintains Malik. He says that funding from abroad has also been checked. Some prominent and not so prominent money changers who facilitated these transfers are now behind bars.
Most observers think otherwise. Recent attacks by the Taliban have become more brazen, like the attack on the Peshawar airport over the weekend and also the attack on schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai earlier this year.
This suggests that the TTP are becoming more active and diversifying their targets. The closure of their traditional funding channels has not meant the organisation is running on empty, say analysts. What has instead happened is that the organisation seems to be branching out — pushing its allied outfits to enter the political mainstream on the one hand and looking for new sources of funding on the other.
At a superficial level, the change in tactics as well as the military reverses the TTP has suffered may suggest the outfit is weakening. “Their leadership is being consistently and accurately eliminated by drone attacks,” says Khadim Hussain, who heads a local think tank in Islamabad. Hussain says that the deaths of its key members have meant the TTP is gradually becoming directionless.
With this, the cutting of regular supplies of funds has also been cited as a factor weakening the TTP. The government has also set up local committees to counter the might of the militants in the tribal areas and this has had mixed results.
But the evidence is more suggestive of a TTP that is moving into new areas of operations rather than one that is weakening. Analysts say that not only has the TTP proliferated but also come into the cities. “The TTP is very much present in Karachi where it is now taking protection money from areas which it controls,” alleges Shahi Syed, the Karachi president of the Awami National Party (ANP). The ANP and the TTP seem now to be at loggerheads in Pakistan’s largest city — the ANP says that over 70 of its activists have been assassinated this year as a result of turf wars with the TTP.
Independent observers confirm the ANP’s claims. “The Pakhtoon community is sizeable in Karachi and what we are seeing is that the TTP is trying to wrest the mantle of leadership from the ANP,” comments local journalist Sohail Khattak. He also informs that the TTP has started to target local Pakhtoon businessmen to pay “bhatta”(protection money). Shops that have refused to pay bhatta have been attacked by the TTP.
For the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the TTP threat is very real and very worrying. MQM leader Altaf Hussain warned in a rally earlier this year after the attack on Malala that the TTP “was taking us back to the stone ages.” Hussain said the TTP was regrouping and “gaining strength throughout the country.”
The TTP’s political clout can be gauged from the fact that whenever Maulana Fazlur Rehman wants to visit his constituents in parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, he has to take a green signal from the TTP. More recently, a leader of the right wing Jamaat-e-Islami party, Qazi Husain Ahmad, did not take such a clearance and was met with a suicide bomb attack on his political procession. Husain blamed the US for the attack but local reporters said it was clear the TTP was issuing a warning shot.
The TTP may not believe in contesting local elections but it does want to make it clear that no political activity takes place in areas under its control without its approval.
And while the TTP remains apolitical, its offshoots and allied parties are moving into mainstream politics.
The most visible of such alliances is that between Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz party and the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a banned hardline sectarian terror group that has resurfaced under a different guise. “This is a particular problem in South Punjab where the PML-N is weak and these extremists can challenge the Peoples Party,” comments analyst Aisha Siddiqa.
Another organisation that is seen close to the TTP is the Jamiat Ulema Islam of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. This party only fields candidates after clearance from the TTP. The JUIF was a coalition partner of the government and pressured it to go easy on militants.
Many militants who were arrested on terror charges were released by the government on JUI-F’s insistence.
As the TTP spreads its tentacles, the government remains silent, also because of pressures from the army. A year back, army chief General Parvez Kayani had invited journalists for a “free and frank discussion” where he tried to sell his idea of the existence of a “good Taliban and bad Taliban.” This month, foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar told an interviewer that the “associations of decades cannot be wished away in a matter of months. We have to see the ground reality.” The reality for the government, they say, is that the TTP is an asset.
Ultimately, it is this official patronage that emboldens the TTP, say analysts. “Some see the TTP as a pawn in a larger game. As our trump card,” comments Farrukh Pitafi, who hosts a TV political discussion programme in Islamabad.
However, many warn that this incestuous relationship has accomplished little other than to make Pakistan suffer a lot over the years.