Pakistani Taliban seeks to rebuild strength through mergers

Reconciliation with factions widens reach of militant group battered by military offensives

Pakistani army soldier stand guard on a border terminal in Ghulam Khan, a town in North Waziristan, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, on January 27, 2019. - Afghans harboured furtive hopes on January 27 that talks between the US and Taliban leaders could end decades of conflict, despite fears an American withdrawal might unleash even more violence. American negotiators and the Taliban on January 26 said the two sides had made substantial progress in the most recent round of talks in Qatar, promising to meet again to continue discussions that could pave the way for official peace negotiations. (Photo by FAROOQ NAEEM / AFP)
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The Pakistan Taliban movement's reconciliation with two splinter groups continues the once formidable militant group's attempt to rebuild its network after being broken by infighting and successful army operations, analysts and Pakistani officials believe.

The alliance with two formerly estranged factions may give the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) access to better logistics and the ability to extend its influence beyond the border margins where it was pushed in 2015.

The reunion earlier this month with Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) also marks the most significant success yet for TTP leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud.

Mehsud took over the remnants of a group in disarray two years ago, after several of its top leaders had been killed by US drone strikes on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. TTP fighters were forced to take shelter in neighbouring Afghanistan, or give up their struggle and settle in urban Pakistan.

A TTP statement earlier this month said the two groups had now pledged allegiance to Mehsud.

“Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan welcomes them,” the statement said, adding that it would like all groups to unite.

Analysts said the TTP remained a shadow of the umbrella militant movement that a decade ago fought to overthrow the government and install its own version of Sharia.

Yet the merger could mark the start of serious attempts to rebuild.

"Many are depicting the militants' reunion as a cause of concern for national security as it is feared that after the merger the TTP can intensify its terror campaign, specifically in some districts of Punjab and Balochistan provinces, where JuA and HuA already have active networks," said one government assessment seen by The National.

Bloody military offensives and tribal squabbles badly fractured the TTP, leading many fighters to defect to the local branch of ISIS.

Mehsud came to power pledging to rebuild alliances. Soon after taking control he issued guidelines on how to settle internal disputes.

The group has continued to claim ambushes and bomb attacks on Pakistani troops in north Waziristan, but overall levels of violence are greatly reduced from a decade ago.

“I think what this merger can bring along for the TTP is some more networks, some more links,” said Umer Karim of the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

“We need to see what they can achieve on the ground in order to say if this will be significant. For the past couple of years, the TTP has tried, but whatever attacks or whatever operations it has managed to do have remained insignificant.”

Pakistan's army retains a firm grip in the border districts where the TTP once thrived, although there have been reports of militants returning from their Afghan hideouts.

Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar, Pakistan army spokesman, said this month that the military’s operations had been very successful. “The war against terrorism has yielded some hard-earned success,” he told a news conference.

Despite the mergers, the group remains weak, said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.

Mr Karim said the TTP was attempting to rebuild almost from scratch, and the border regions where it once held sway had changed significantly. Not only did the Pakistani state have a much firmer grip there now, but local politics had changed. The rise of a civil rights protest group campaigning against army abuses in the region had become a political outlet for disillusioned young men who might previously have taken up weapons.

The recent mergers are "more a step in the longer term", he said. "They are saying 'let's be together, let's co-ordinate together, let's use each other's resources and let's not go separate ways'.

"What they are able to achieve we still need to see. The Pakistani state up there both on the military and civil front is much stronger state than it was in 2007 or 2008.”