Basit Gilani / EPA

Despite school atrocity, the Pakistani Taliban is weakening

Analysis: A permissive attitude toward other extremist groups is undermining Pakistan’s strategy

Everyone knew it was coming, but no one could guess just how barbaric the Pakistani Taliban's revenge would be.

For six months and one day, the Pakistan Air Force had bombarded the group in North Waziristan while ground troops rifled through its hideouts as part of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the military’s long-awaited offensive against the armed groups that have brought years of misery to the country and the region beyond.

Tuesday’s massacre of 132 pupils and 16 staff at a school in Peshawar was the bloody blowback. But the question it poses for Pakistan’s leaders and their Western allies is whether the Peshawar massacre represents a worrying resurgence of violence or it's a sign that the Pakistani Taliban — a local umbrella body separate from the Afghan Taliban (which, incidentally, condemned Tuesday’s attack) — is a spent force, weakened and reduced to attacking soft targets.

Amir Rana, of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, said the Pakistani Taliban has been under intense pressure, losing foot soldiers in battle and to political splits. The movement’s leadership was rocked, Rana notes, by a massive suicide attack last month on the Wagah border crossing with India, near Lahore, that killed at least 55 people. Responsibility for the blast was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a new breakaway group that includes a number of senior commanders.

“The TTP needed something to claim,” he said, using the acronym for the movement’s full name, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

The renewed bloodletting was hardly expected at the start of 2014, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, backed by all the major political parties, opened peace talks with the TTP.

Two sets of interlocutors met and set the ground rules for government negotiators to meet Taliban commanders in North Waziristan. They agreed to a cease-fire, albeit one that was frequently interrupted.

A major attack on the Karachi airport in June, when 10 gunmen wearing suicide vests attempted to seize planes filled with passengers, was too much for the authorities to overlook. The talks were abandoned, and within days the military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb – “Strike of the Prophet’s Sword” — in an attempt to gain the advantage.

Day by day, the military updates its toll of what it says are casualties suffered by the Pakistani Taliban. The total, according to the army, stands at more than 1,200. None of the details can be verified, however, as the region remains off limits to journalists.

The military claims to have killed a key Al-Qaeda operational commander in the course of the offensive and to have captured the 10-man gang responsible for the failed 2012 attempt to kill Malala Yousafzai.

The TTP has reportedly come under intense pressure in what it had come to consider its safe havens in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that commanders said they had been targeted by drone strikes and by Afghan troops.

“Previously, they would avoid visiting areas where our people were staying and even provided food to some of our people, but now they’re creating problems,” a Pakistani Taliban commander said of Afghan forces.

Rana’s research center in Islamabad credits the offensives with putting the TTP on the ropes, resulting in a 30 percent drop in attacks across Pakistan.

The movement’s decline may have begun with last year’s U.S. drone strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP’s charismatic leader. His death sparked a bitter succession struggle, eventually won by Mullah Fazlullah, the man who allegedly ordered Yousafzai’s assassination.

Fazlullah's power base was in the Swat Valley rather than among South Waziristan’s Mehsuds, the clan that has dominated the TTP ever since it formed in 2007. As a result, the new leader has struggled to bind together the movement’s mishmash of gangsters, sectarian groups and Al-Qaeda-linked cells.

The most embarrassing split came in September, when Fazlullah’s own spokesman, Ihsanullah Ihsan (or at least one of the men using that pseudonym), announced the creation of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar by a number of powerful Mehsud and Wazir commanders. At a stroke, the Taliban lost a significant amount of its firepower.

But Tuesday’s carnage in Peshawar was designed to send a clear message: The TTP is far from a spent force. “The pace of attacks has gone down, so their capabilities are under pressure,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “But they are showing they retain the ability to launch spectaculars even after the government offensives.”

The movement may be weakened, but it remains at the center of a radical network that stretches across Pakistan, he said, helping them operate in places such as Punjab, well beyond their traditional heartland.

Critics note that the Pakistani authorities don't treat all extremist groups as equal threats. It is frequently accused of adhering to a good Taliban/bad Taliban policy, distinguishing between groups, such as the TTP, that directly threaten the Pakistani state and those that are useful to its foreign policy objectives, such as the Haqqani network or Lashkar-e-Taiba, which direct their violence at Afghanistan and India, respectively. Even the Afghan Taliban remains integral to Pakistan’s goal of balancing India’s influence in Kabul.

Sartaj Aziz, a foreign policy adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, seemed to confirm those fears last month when he was asked why the military was not doing more to target other militant groups. “Why should America’s enemies unnecessarily become our enemies?” he told BBC Urdu.

Targeting one group such as the Pakistani Taliban, critics argue, makes little difference when so many other armed groups can operate freely. So while leaders of the Pakistani Taliban are being killed by drones, Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, is free to preach every Friday in Lahore, despite a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head.

Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, said he hoped the Peshawar attack would lead to a re-evaluation of Islamabad’s relationship with armed groups. “If this time things are to change, then it has to result in a national consensus as to who is the enemy,” he said.

On Wednesday, the prime minister signaled a change in approach, announcing a new committee that would devise a strategy to root out violent extremists.

“There is no difference between good Taliban and bad Taliban,” Sharif said at a press conference in Peshawar. Such comments have been heard before, without much having changed. If the Pakistani Taliban can continue to operate with like-minded armed groups in sanctioned havens, its current strength or weakness may be irrelevant.


Related News

Taliban, Terrorism

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Taliban, Terrorism

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter