Pakistan never ceases to amaze. This was evident in their recently concluded elections. Polling results were delayed by days to select candidates shortlisted by the Rawalpindi clique of generals.
The return of the dreaded Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is causing great anxiety among civilians, media reports said.
The Islamist militant group once controlled large swathes of the mountainous region that borders Afghanistan and is populated by Pashtuns. Tens of thousands of people were killed and millions more displaced in years of TTP attacks and the army’s large-scale military operations against it, RFE/RL reported.
The group finally fled to Afghanistan in 2014.
But residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been shocked recently by the return of hundreds of TTP fighters. They are alarmed that the militants have come back even before Islamabad signed the peace agreement it has been negotiating with the group since late last year, RFE/RL reported.
“We are against imposing a war on our homeland again,” Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights organisation, told a gathering of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s political leaders on August 16.
He claimed the Taliban have already made a significant comeback in Waziristan, formally divided between the South Waziristan and North Waziristan districts.
Pashteen said several government agreements with the TTP and other Taliban factions before its eventual departure to Afghanistan in 2014 didn’t lead to peace.
“We are not against the negotiations, but we oppose theatrics in the name of talks. We have no choice but to resist,” he said.
Since its emergence in 2018, the PTM has earned the wrath of Pakistani authorities by accusing the powerful military of supporting various Taliban factions.
The PTM blames the Taliban and the military for tormenting Pashtun civilians, who make up most of the estimated 80,000 civilians killed and more than six million people displaced since the Pakistani Taliban emerged in 2003, RFE/RL reported.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker, said the entire negotiation process is aimed at “tackling” the Pashtun political resistance against Talibanisation, a term denoting growing Islamic fundamentalism.
“The TTP has been violently stopping the election campaign of Pashtun nationalists in Pakhtunkhwa,” he said, adding that Pakistan’s military wants to orchestrate “political engineering” to empower Islamists at the cost of secular Pashtuns, RFE/RL reported.
Secular Pashtuns became the main target for the TTP after the Awami National Party (ANP), a moderate ethnonationalist group, formed the provincial government after winning the 2008 parliamentary elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
More than 1,000 ANP members were killed in attacks by the Islamist militants. ANP lost the 2013 election partially because of the TTP’s attacks. Khattak survived a suicide attack in 2008.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan expert at the University of London, agrees.
She said the military appears to not be worried about the domestic blowback from the TTP’s return.
“The institutional thinking [inside the military] is that the tribal areas are religiously conservative and the TTP should be allowed to implement their Shari’a-based system to keep the rest of Pakistan secure,” she told RFE/RL.
Siddiqa said the military sees the eastern province of Punjab as Pakistan’s core and whose protection supersedes peace and security in the peripheral regions.
But residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are not convinced by this reasoning.
“Our only demand is that the current insecurity must end,” said Adnan Khan, a resident of Maidan and one of the protesters against the return of the TTP.
For many, their reappearance heralds a return of the TTP’s oppressive control when targeted assassinations, bomb attacks, extortion, and harassment dominated daily life in some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The residents of Swat and the nearby Lower Dir districts staged protests this month after TTP militants established checkpoints, injured and kidnapped security forces, and were blamed for targeted killings and high-profile attacks.
The residents of North Waziristan, a restive district in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have been protesting the rising insecurity and assassinations for more than a month, RFE/RL reported.
“The TTP’s show of strength is gauging the public reaction to their demand of returning to these regions with their arms,” said Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher who tracks the group.
In talks with Islamabad, the group has insisted that its fighters must return to their home districts with their weapons.
On August 12, residents of Swat protested across the scenic region, which due to better security in recent years has again become a leading tourist destination for Pakistanis seeking to escape the scorching summer heat in the cities and plains across the country, RFE/RL reported.
The Pakistani military, too, appeared to have felt the growing public resentment. An August 13 statement by the military’s media wing termed reports about the TTP presence as “grossly exaggerated and misleading”.