Since its founding in 2007 by Baitullah Mehsud, the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) has gained a formidable presence in the international terrorist community and has recently become a prime target for the United States and other nations who are engaged in the war on terror. Following the break in agreements with the Pakistani government and the initiation of a military offensive against the Tehrik-e-Taliban in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) in 2014, the Pakistani Taliban focused their military capabilities inward and declared war against the Pakistani government. Currently, the TTP is able to access funds to finance its operations primarily through the taxing of the local community in the FATA regions, exploiting natural resources in the Swat Valley, and obtaining charitable donations from other terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. Although the United States and Pakistani governments have succeeded in eliminating the previous three amirs of the TTP, its fundamental lack of strategy in relation to taking advantage of the structure of the TTP has led to the revitalization of the terrorist group within the last year. If the Pakistani and U.S. governments are serious about removing the security threat that the TTP poses, then they must continue to conduct counterinsurgency raids in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and target lower-level leaders in order to cause internal splintering within the terrorist group.
The Origins and Anatomical Structure of TTP
The Tehrik-e-Taliban is the largest subset and militant umbrella organization of the Pakistani Taliban and was founded by Baitullah Mehsud with the assistance of a shura of over forty different tribal leaders from the FATA regions of northwest Pakistan in 2007. Although the amir and senior naib amir of the TTP are elected by the shura, the divisional commanders are tribal leaders who represent the control of their appropriate regions in the FATA. The Mehsud tribe of South Waziristan is the dominant tribal group within the TTP organization. Given the creation of the coalition of radical Islam forces under the banner of the TTP, it is premised that all divisional commanders act in accordance with the orders of the amir and senior naib amir.
The origin of the TTP is primarily derived from the spillover of Afghan Taliban fighters into Pakistan after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Due to the lack of border security between the two nations, the Afghanistan Taliban was able to form enclaves in the FATA regions of Pakistan and inspire radical extremists within the country to join the cause in supporting military operations in Afghanistan. However, after the Pakistani government initiated military operations against the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad in July of 2007, under pressure from the United States, the shura collaborated in December of 2007 to form the TTP. After Baitullah Mehsud was assassinated by a U.S. drone strike in 2009, the shura appointed Hakimullah Mehsud to assume the leadership of the TTP. From his appointment in 2009 and up until his death in 2013, Hakimullah Mehsud and the TTP engaged in small-scale warfare against the local Pakistani police and attempted to perform international terrorist acts such as the bombing of a U.S. base in Afghanistan in 2009 and the New York Times Square bomb plot in 2010.
After Hakimullah Mehsud was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2013, the shura appointed Maulana Fazlullah as the successor for leadership in the TTP. Although Fazlullah was seen as a fervent conservative Muslim, he was not accepted by the dominant Mehsud tribe. Fazlullah’s appointment to power caused extreme splintering within the TTP and saw the reduction of unilateral and coordinated decision making between the insurgent groups under the TTP. In addition to experiencing the effects of the undermining of TTP leadership, the TTP’s infrastructure and pool of available insurgents became depleted after the Pakistani military conducted Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June of 2014. During this operation, the Pakistani military was able to conduct counterinsurgent raids within the North Waziristan region and was able to seek and destroy large amounts of insurgent weaponry. In tandem with the military cripplement of the TTP and deaths of over 3,500 militants from Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the initiation of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad in February of 2017 led to the heavy reduction of the TTP’s operational capacity.
Within the operation, the Pakistani government was able to streamline court cases for suspects involved with terrorism and administer soldiers stretching from the Pakistani borders with Afghanistan and the Punjab region in Pakistan. Although the U.S. and Pakistani security forces have been persistent in closing access to Afghanistan as a terrorist safe haven, natural floods that devastated the country in 2010 and the high civilian casualty rate that was tied to U.S. drone strikes on terrorist members have led to the stabilization of support for the TTP. Consequently, the assassination of Maulana Fazlullah in June of 2018 and the appointment of Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud have resolved the internal divisions within the TTP as the Mehsud tribe has regained control of the TTP’s leadership.
Drone Strikes and the Targeting of the Mehsud Tribe
If the United States and Pakistani governments want to perpetuate the internal splintering of the TTP, then both governments must conduct military drone strikes against the dominant Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. Given that the TTP’s lowest operational capacity occurred under the leadership of a non-Mehsud tribal leader (Maulana Fazlullah), it is essential that all military strikes be designed to weaken the strength of the Mehsud tribe by targeting its high-level leadership. However, it is vital that all drone strikes be conducted with a conscious effort to reduce civilian casualties within the FATA region. According to one study, “Strikes were only one of several factors driving the cycle of fighting and fruitless negotiations” and the frequency of civilian casualties that were sustained due to drone strikes have made it difficult to hold negotiations between the TTP and Pakistani government in Islamabad. During an interview with Iqbal Kjattak, Baitullah Mehsud, the founder of the TTP, claimed that drone strikes gave the terrorist organization a spike in public support. If the Pakistani wants to reduce the pool of potential supporting TTP members from the Pakistani community in the FATA region, then it must restrain the United States from utilizing non-precise drone attacks on leaders and keep civilian casualties to a minimum.
Given that the TTP received much of its funding from forced local tributes in the Swat Valley, it is critical that the Pakistani military continues to stabilize the region and prevent TTP access to this outlet of wealth and security. If the United States is able to use precision drone strikes to eliminate TTP leaders and if the Pakistani government is able to constrict the financial foundation of the TTP, then both governments can incapacitate the TTP and mitigate its influence in Pakistan.