Taliban Success Emboldens Pakistani Militants, and deadly Attacks Surge

Saiyna Bashir for The Washington Post
Police in Peshawar, Pakistan, gather Sept. 28 to pay tribute to those killed in a January attack on a mosque inside the police compound.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The attackers descended from the steep mountains that tower over Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan in the early morning hours. Gunfire echoed in the valleys as Pakistani Taliban fighters stormed Pakistani military posts. By the time the fighting stopped hours later, four soldiers and 12 militants were dead.

The Sept. 6 attack, described by officials in Pakistan as a cross-border assault from Afghanistan, stunned a Pakistani leadership that had thought the Pakistani Taliban to be virtually eliminated.

But the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan two years ago has energized the Pakistani militant group. And while the Afghan government denies allegations that it is providing havens to that group, security analysts said the success of the Afghan Taliban has at a minimum emboldened its Pakistani counterparts and encouraged them to fully embrace the same playbook.

The string of deadly blasts and shootings has led to a moment of soul-searching in Pakistan. During the 20-year U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s leadership was frequently accused of harboring or tolerating Afghan Taliban leaders and fighters. It now appears to find itself on the reverse end of a very similar situation.

The violence has horrified Pakistanis, whose memories of the group’s first wave of insurgency more than a decade ago are still vivid. The Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP, has been seeking to oust the country’s establishment and put in place a conservative Islamic legal and political system, similar to the one now in power in Afghanistan.

Operating as a group distinct from the Afghan Taliban, the TTP had made deep inroads into the country at the time, imposing sharia law in isolated valleys and staging deadly bombings. Pakistan could now be heading into a new such cycle of violence, residents in the northwestern part of the country fear.

During the first half of this year, militant attacks throughout Pakistan went up 80 percent, according to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, with the Pakistani Taliban suspected of being behind most of them.

“People are joining our ranks in a way we’ve never seen before,” one of the group’s commanders, Omar Mukarram Khorasani, said in an interview.

“It’s not only that TTP is taking shelter in Afghanistan, but also that some Afghans are joining their ranks,” said Asif Durrani, Pakistan’s special representative on Afghanistan. Fourteen of 24 major terrorist attacks carried out this year in Pakistan have been by Afghan nationals, Pakistani officials say.

The Taliban-run government in Afghanistan has vehemently denied the Pakistani assertions, saying it neither provides shelter nor indirect support for the TTP, and that no Afghans should fight a jihad abroad without the supreme leader’s explicit orders.

But during the past couple of years, the Pakistani Taliban has followed the example of its Afghan counterparts by putting out high-definition propaganda clips and naming shadow governors to suggest it is preparing for the day it will seize power in Pakistan. Last weekend, a group linked to the TTP carried out a brazen attack on a Pakistani air force base deep inside the country, damaging several aircraft.

Pakistan’s leadership in recent months has begun to publicly accuse the Afghan government of not doing enough to rein in the group.

It marks “a shift in their own diagnosis and public position on what the fundamental driver of attacks is,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace, adding that “the goodwill that the [Afghan] Taliban enjoyed is now gone.” Mir cited Pakistan’s planned deportation of 1.7 million Afghan refugees, which began last week, as the most serious result so far of Pakistan’s increasing frustration.

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In Peshawar, one of Asia’s oldest trading towns and a midway point between Kabul and Islamabad for centuries, the Pakistani Taliban’s growing footprint did not go unnoticed during the past two years.

But it took a powerful blast at a mosque inside a Peshawar police compound in January for officials here to become alarmed. Eighty-seven people were killed in the bombing, which Pakistani officials suspected was orchestrated by the TTP.

“We lost so many friends that day,” said Kashif Khan, whose brother – a police officer – was killed in the bombing. “Death is a certainty for all humans,” Khan said. But to him and others in Peshawar, it has felt a lot closer in recent months.

Extortion attempts blamed on the TTP have forced business leaders to move their families to safer parts of the country. In some communities, children have stopped playing outside.

Pakistan’s government in part faults the rushed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan for the rise in attacks, arguing that the Pakistani Taliban was able to seize weapons, night-vision devices and other equipment in the aftermath.

The Taliban-run Afghan government rejects those claims, saying that its actions in the wake of the takeover prevented weapons from being looted. It has also rejected responsibility for the Sept. 6 attack, saying it did not originate in Afghanistan. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan does not allow any such groups to use Afghan territory,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban-run government.

In private, the Afghan government says it has detained or relocated at least some TTP fighters, according to Pakistani officials. “We have been assured by the Afghan authorities that they will not allow Afghan soil to be used against Pakistan,” Durrani said.

Pakistani officials said they think that the Afghan government’s reluctance to confirm that they’re cooperating with them may reflect the pressure Afghan leaders face from others in the government who are skeptical of Pakistan and see the Pakistani Taliban as ideological counterparts.

But Pakistan’s focus on the Afghan government’s responsibility might understate the extent to which the TTP has itself evolved in recent years, analysts say. It has overcome internal disarray and morphed into a more effective group that’s “trying to emulate the Afghan Taliban,” Mir said.

Between 2007 and 2014, the Pakistani Taliban and other groups had already made significant gains in northwestern Pakistan. The 2014 Peshawar school massacre – when six of its gunmen killed 140 people – was a turning point. A sustained Pakistani military campaign fragmented the group and brought it close to dissolution.

In the years since, and particularly during the past three years, the group’s new leader, Noor Wali Mehsud, has restructured the Pakistani Taliban. He has imitated the Afghan Taliban’s approach, before victory, of naming shadow governors that each oversee five or six regional deputies with responsibility for recruitment, financing and politics, according to Khorasani, the TTP commander, who was the group’s shadow governor for Peshawar until last year.

“The former system along tribal lines didn’t work,” he said. “So, we applied the Afghan system.”

Many commanders were rotated out of their home bases “to better manage internal politics, reducing the risks of fragmentation and splintering,” said Mir, the analyst. In its increasingly professional magazines and propaganda videos, the group contrasted rosy descriptions of life in Afghanistan with frustration over Pakistan’s economic downturn and surging inflation.

As fighting intensified in recent years, Ibad Ullah, 18, repeatedly urged his father, a police officer in Peshawar, to transfer to a different town. The Jan. 30 blast killed him just as he was saying goodbye to his colleagues, hours before he was supposed to be reassigned.

“He had just called my mom to celebrate having picked up his transfer papers,” he recalled.

Hundreds more police officers and soldiers have been killed this year. But unlike the first wave of TTP violence that began in 2007, when its fighters killed American officials and Pakistani civilians indiscriminately, the group no longer claims responsibility for attacks on nonmilitary targets, saying its only enemy is the Pakistani state – and not the Pakistani people or the United States.

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Those who have been hit hardest by the resurgent militancy say the group’s assurances cannot be trusted. In Peshawar, the effect has been devastating for civilians and for members of the security forces: The rise in the number of deadly blasts has been accompanied by a surge in extortion attempts and other crimes that officials blame on the Pakistani Taliban.

Fawad Ishaq, the president of a local chamber of commerce, said most business owners in and around Peshawar have been victims of extortion schemes during the past three years. At the height of the first wave of TTP violence in 2008, his younger brother was kidnapped and released only after a ransom payment. Now, he said, “it seems like things are headed the same direction.”

Investment in this part of northwestern Pakistan – long a hub for the textile, concrete and sugar industries – has plummeted, Ishaq said. He also blamed the Pakistani government, saying it has only halfheartedly responded to the rising insecurity.

Compounding the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban, the regional Islamic State branch, Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), has also carried out attacks here in recent months, prompting fears that both groups could enter a deadly competition for attention and followers. While ISIS-K is an ideological rival of the Taliban, they both draw on the same pool of potential recruits.

“The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan sharpened the rivalry between the Taliban and ISIS-K, and it has fueled a desire of ISIS-K to not only undermine the Taliban, but also the Taliban’s allies,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center, warning that it could create a cycle of violence “where each side is trying to one-up the other.”

Religious minorities in Pakistan have been among the first victims. At least two members of Peshawar’s Sikh community were killed in the few past months. While ISIS-K claimed responsibility for some of the recent attacks, suspicion has also fallen on TTP-linked groups.

The city was home to 500 Sikh families five years ago. These days, 200 families are left, said Balbeer Singh, a teacher in a Sikh religious school. Many families, including his own, are thinking about leaving. Since last year, “each day, the situation has gotten worse,” he said, sitting in the school that was once bustling with students. Outside the building, Pakistani police stood guard with rifles.

After every new killing or blast, the school is almost empty for at least a week, he said. “We’re trying our best to console our children,” he said, “but there are times when they are just not willing to leave their homes anymore.”