Unpacking TTP’s curious new narrative

Ending its months-long cease-fire with Islamabad, TTP has made a comeback by intensifying attacks inside Pakistan.

Dr Raza Khan January 29, 2023


After remaining dormant for nearly five years, the largest militant network of Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), commonly known as Pakistani Taliban, has made a strong comeback in terms of its attacks inside Pakistan, thanks to the return to power of Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, where the TTP is based. In order to become a force to reckon with and to sustain the group, its leadership has come up with a seemingly elaborate narrative.

The new narrative can mainly be attributed to TTP’s current head, Maulvi Noor Wali Mehsud, a far more articulate head of the TTP than its founder Baitullah Mehsud (2007-2009), followed by Hakimullah Mehsud (2009-2013) and Maulvi Fazlullah (2013-2018). The foremost reason for this being that Noor Wali has received formal religious education while Baitullah and Hakimullah did not study at an established Muslim seminary. Although Fazlullah received education at a madrassah, it was not at par with that of Mehsud.

Loopholes in the previous narrative

Under Mehsud, the TTP leadership realised the need for a shift in its previously extant narrative or to come up with a more comprehensive a narrative or discourse. An elaborate narrative is a sine-qua-non both for internal and external consumption. For an internal audience, a comprehensive narrative is critically needed to justify its operations, and for the external public, the narrative must significantly communicate the need for TTP’s formation and its resort to violence, so as to win followers.

Considering TTP’s history, it never had an extensive, compelling and profound narrative. The only consistent line of argument on its part regarding its terrorist attacks in Pakistan and on its security forces had been that the country joined the US, and the West orchestrated the global war on terror. In groups such as the TTP, this war view dislodged an ‘Islamic Emirate’ in Afghanistan in 2001, referring to US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan by forcibly ousting the Afghan Taliban regime there, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US.

The previous narrative could not justify much of its violence in Pakistan, specifically the attacks on civilians and non-combatants and above all schoolchildren (2014 Peshawar school massacre). Consequently, the group became disliked in Pakistan and elsewhere for such loathsome activities.

Against this backdrop, the TTP ought to shift its narrative and come up with strong concatenated argumentations regarding the raison d’etre, and more importantly for its continued and gushing violence. It has to assume a new identity to overcome public hatred and fear. The new narrative could be instrumental in shaping a new identity and personality of TTP.

The new narrative

The foremost argument in the new discourse of the TTP has been to associate itself with society in Pakistan as the vanguard of Islam and society’s Islamic personality. More importantly, TTP’s bid to link itself with the Muslim-dominated society of Pakistan is aimed at exploiting the profound Islamic sentiments of common Pakistanis. “The mujahideen of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan are children of their Islamist nation, no matter how many operations the government conducts, the impression of Mujahideen in this Islamist society cannot be eradicated,” said the TTP head, during an interview to a Turkish media outlet in November 2022.

According to Dr Naila Qazi, a specialist in political sociology at the University of Peshawar, “The TTP would not be able to make a place in the Pakistani society, which may be Islamic in orientation and associate emotionally with everything Islamic, because it does not support mass violence in the name of religion, for instance, on adherents of other religions. Having said this, over the last two decades, the Pakistani society has become profoundly radicalised, supporting violence in individual instances on the pretext of religion. The TTP efforts to associate with Pakistani society by exploiting its Islamic sentiments could be successful to a certain extent, particularly given that the country’s political and economic situation has remained adverse for decades.”

It is important to understand that the TTP leadership has been cognizant of the profound political and economic issues of Pakistan and hence, it has started arguing more vociferously, that as long as the western democratic constitution with its parliamentary political system are in vogue, people will suffer. This argument of the TTP has considerable substance and logic, because Pakistan’s parliamentary political system, which is personality and individual driven, and designed to provide benefits to specific groups, families, institutions and individuals has brought misery to the people.

Wearing the political hat

Occasional pieces of writing, statements and interviews of the TTP leadership indicate that it is trying to present itself as a political force. Through multiple communications, TTP tries to depict that it has already been chosen by the people to perpetrate violence to get rid of the corrupt political system. The TTP leaders also publicly claim that the group seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan and for this, the parliamentary political-constitutional-democratic system needs to be overthrown. “Overthrowing an established but malfunctioning political system by an armed group is sheer terrorism,” says Dr Qazi. “But terrorism is known as politically-motivated violence. One aspect of this axiom regarding terrorism which is not highlighted is that it may be politically motivated violence, but one where the aims are political, while the means are non-political and rather violent. In this context, establishing of a caliphate by the TTP is purely a political objective.”

To understand the group’s efforts to demonstrate itself as a ‘political’ force, a brief analysis of TTP’s announcement of a parallel government in K-P and Pashtun-inhabited parts of Balochistan is significant. The announcement came early this year, and in this regard, a comprehensive list of TTP administrators for different districts of the provinces was mentioned. The list of ministries and departments of TTP’s parallel or shadow government includes information, political affairs, economic affairs, education, fatwa-issuing authority, department for construction besides judiciary, defense and intelligence apparatus. The enlisting of ministries and departments such as political and economic affairs on part of the TTP can best be called ‘shadow state-actor.’ Announcement of a parallel government is itself a political aim on part of the TTP, which it is trying to promote through its narrative.

A closer look at TTP statements and bigwigs particularly Mehsud’s interviews suggests a deep urge to have territory, but this is only implicitly expressed. For instance, the parallel government which the TTP has announced is only for the K-P and the Pashtun-inhabited parts of Balochistan, a territory from where it had pockets of support and raised almost all of its fighters.

The TTP has been consistently demanding the Pakistan government to reverse the 2018 merger of FATA into KP. This has been their key demand in its last two years of intermittent talks with the government. In a recent interview Mehsud said that his group was launching attacks on Pakistan forces from ‘its territory,’ referring to the Pashtun belt of KP.

Power hungry

In fact, the TTP, notwithstanding its rhetoric of working for the interest of Islam and Muslims, is power hungry and therefore, its aims are realistic. According to Hans J. Morgenthau, a German-American political scientist, every struggle is a struggle for power. So is the TTP’s struggle. Moreover, according to the rational-choice approach of social sciences, terrorist groups resort to violence as for them it is the most rational means to attain its objective primarily power, territory and resources.

“Had the TTP been working for the interests of Muslims of Pakistan, it should have joined the political system or openly campaigned against it and convinced the people to support them to overthrow the system through non-violent protests,” says Aftab Khattak, an Islamabad-based political analyst. “But as the group realises that it does not have the support of even a sizable number (let alone the majority) of Pakistani Muslims, it has resorted to armed struggle.”

A fatwa issued by at least 16 top religious scholars [mostly subscribing to Deobandi school of thought that the TTP also subscribes to] from KP dismisses the TTP stance of trying to overthrow an ‘infidel’ system: “Declaring war against the police and security forces defending an Islamic state is haraam [proscribed by Islamic law] and the defiance of state according to Islamic shariah.”

Interestingly, the fatwa came a few days after TTP head, Mehsud sought to justify his group’s violent campaign while addressing Muslim scholars. “If you find any problem in the jihad that we waged [against this global infidel agenda], if you believe we have changed our direction, that we have gone astray, then you’re requested to guide us. We’re always ready to listen to your arguments happily,” he said in a video message addressed to the Islamic scholars of Pakistan.


A quirky stance

An important strand of the TTP narrative since Mehsud assumed leadership is the group’s outlandish Pashtun nationalist line by trying to portray itself as an outfit working for the liberation of Pashtuns in Pakistan. This stance traditionally taken by Afghan state since the formation of Pakistan has been the key reason for Kabul’s refusal to vote for Pakistan membership of the UN in September 1947.

Consequently, Afghanistan has had never accepted the international border between itself and Pakistan, known as the Durand Line, a permanent border.

“The Durand Line is an unnatural and cruel line,” says Mehsud in an interview. “Pashtuns as a nation will never accept this separation.”

When he was asked whether his group had plans to abolish the Durand Line in the TTP’s anti-Pakistan bid, Mehsud retorted, “This is premature, so there is still some journey left. When this journey reaches the goal, then we will think about plans.”

Aimed at cultivating a support base in Afghanistan, the Pashtun-nationalist narrative resonates well with Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pashtun pockets in Pakistan.


Singing praises for Afghan Taliban

The TTP has been excessively eulogising Afghan Taliban victory in Afghanistan, moreso after realising that the Afghan Taliban enjoy a sympathy vote in Pakistan, particularly among the fellow Pashtun tribes, and those who have a myopic worldview in the backdrop adverse political, economic and social conditions prevalent for decades.

It also presents itself as a group that could replicate the Afghan Taliban style of victory and hence impose what it considers Islamic Shariah in Pakistan, and dispense Islamic punishments like Afghan Taliban have been doing in Afghanistan. Of late the TTP has even started claiming that the Afghan Taliban victory in Afghanistan and restoration of their ‘Islamic Emirate’ in August 2021 was indeed due to the sacrifices of the TTP.

While this may not sit well with the Afghan Taliban, the aim of such an argument by TTP is to solicit Pakistani support to help it establish a ‘puritanical Islamic’ rule in the country.

The bottom line

Not just confusing, TTP’s new narrative has a lot of contradictions. On the one hand, it claims to be a countrywide movement which is why the group’s name includes “Pakistan.” But on the other hand, the TTP claims to be a Pashtun nationalist movement, glorifying Pashtuns and their role in Islamic causes. It does not recognise the Durand Line and believes that the border has divided the Pashtun “nation” making a clear Pashtun ethno-linguistic nationalistic division. The two Islamist and ethno-nationalist claims of the TTP are self-contradictory. Islam only advocates one Islamic nationalism and does not accommodate narrow nationalism.

Whether the new narrative can justify the group’s violence, and win it more supporters and resources remains to be seen. Considering the self-contradictory strands of this narrative, it would be difficult for TTP to sustain its actions and struggle for power.

Dr Raza Khan is an analyst in the areas of security, politics, public policy and governance having a doctoral degree and two decades long work experience with national and international organisations and diplomatic missions. He can be reached at razamzai@gmail.com. All information and facts are the sole responsibility of the writer


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