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Regrouping of Tehreek-e-Taliban worries China, Pak

The reunification of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has increased China’s concerns as the latter is executing several projects in hydropower generation and infrastructure development in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The TTP has kidnapped and killed Chinese nationals in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces. Several Uighur militants have relocated from Syria to Badakshan province of Afghanistan neighbouring Xinjiang.

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Yogesh Gupta
Former Ambassador


SPEAKING on July 7 at a virtual ceremony marking 70 years of establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Pakistan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the two countries needed to augment cooperation to “contain security risks in Afghanistan through the expansion of both international and regional terrorism” to defend regional stability. He asked Pakistan to push for trilateral cooperation by increasing Afghanistan’s involvement in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an important part of China’s Belt and Road initiative.

China and Pakistan’s immediate worries stem from the regrouping of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan’s Paktika province. The TTP has declared Pakistan as its sole theatre of operation and claimed that it poses no threat to other nations. The TTP aims to establish a Sharia state in the old Hind (Hindustan) region beginning with Pakistan.

The Pakistan army had dealt a serious blow to the TTP in June 2014 through its operation Zarb-e-Azb (sharp and cutting strike) in the North Waziristan region which resulted in the killing of about 3,500 militants and the loss of its 490 soldiers, with the displacement of more than a million people and the destruction of their properties and businesses.

According to the 27th report of the UN Analytical and Monitoring Team published recently, five splinter groups — Shehryar Mehsud, Jamaatul Ahrar, Hizbul Ahrar, Amjad Farooqi and Usman Saifullah (formerly known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) — pledged allegiance to the TTP in July-August 2020 under an initiative pushed by the TTP’s new chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud. Mufti has reportedly been successful in winning over the support of groups associated with al-Qaeda and the Punjabi Taliban.

The TTP has reaffirmed its commitment to a protracted struggle against the Pakistani state and is trying to broaden its support base by including the disaffected Pashtun and Baluch ethnic groups, including the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). With the consolidation of numerous splinter groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and al-Qaeda affiliates, it is likely that the TTP will intensify its activities in Pakistan’s urban centres where these groups have had strong networks in the past.

According to a recent US government report, the TTP’s fighting strength in 2020 ranged from 2,500 to 6,000 members and it was responsible for more than 100 cross-border attacks in various parts of Pakistan between July and October 2020. The main targets of the TTP’s attacks in 2020 were the Pakistan army (73% cases, 110 attacks with 179 killings), the police and other security agencies.

Pakistan’s security agencies sought the mediation of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network with the TTP to cease its attacks in Pakistan but the latter did not comply. Sometime back when the Afghan Taliban asked the TTP not to recruit foreign fighters and register its members, the TTP again refused.

The majority of the TTP leadership and fighters originates from the Pashtun belt of Pakistan sharing close tribal and cultural ties with their Afghan counterparts. TTP militants are currently helping the Afghan Taliban in several provinces to obtain quick occupation of Afghanistan and will expect favours after its return to power.

While Pakistan pursues a political agenda in Afghanistan through its support of the Afghan Taliban, the TTP, al-Qaeda, IS and others are pursuing a politico-religious agenda of establishing a Sharia-based Islamic state which will not be to the liking of many Pakistanis. Any future military operation to oust the TTP from Pakistan’s border areas will be much more difficult because of the ease with which TTP militants are able to seek refuge in Afghanistan and their mingling with the large number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The TTP’s reunification has increased China’s concerns too as the latter is executing several projects in hydropower generation and infrastructure development in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP, earlier NWFP) province. The TTP has kidnapped and killed several Chinese nationals in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces. In April, a bomb blast rocked a hotel in Quetta, leaving five dead, five minutes before Chinese Ambassador Nong Rong was returning to the hotel after dinner with Pakistani officials.

The TTP has issued statements against China condemning the persecution faced by the Uighur Muslims in China. Several Uighur militants belonging to the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) have relocated from Syria to Badakshan province of Afghanistan neighbouring Xinjiang, where China is carrying out a vast campaign to incarcerate them in prison camps for re-education. The Badakshan province connects with China through the narrow Wakhan corridor, a passage that the Uighur militants could use for entry into Xinjiang. The resurgence of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang province could threaten several silk road networks connecting China with Russia, Central, Southern and Western Asia, Eurasia and Mongolia.

Last week, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview that it would not allow Uighur militants to enter the country and Chinese investors could return to Afghanistan. Shaheen added that China was a friendly country which would be welcomed for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.

Many, however, do not take the Taliban’s words seriously as it had made similar promises not to allow the activities of al-Qaeda on Afghan soil in the Doha peace deal — a promise which it observed only in its breach. Despite an understanding between the Taliban and China dating back to December 2000, when Mullah Omar was the Taliban chief, the Uighurs have repeatedly made use of the Afghan territory for various activities. Though China is offering a carrot of increased investments if its interests are protected by the Taliban, it will watch the emerging situation carefully before making any new commitments in Afghanistan.

Given its emphasis on more orthodox Islam, the TTP is likely to provide support to ETIM and target projects of importance to China in Pakistan. China is already concerned about the growth of TTP, ETIM, al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Afghanistan and will be hard put to devise strategies to prevent the infiltration of these elements into its restive Xinjiang province


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