Taliban spreading back into Pakistan

AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon

Pakistan was among the first nations to welcome the Taliban back into power in Afghanistan, quickly re-establishing an embassy in Kabul and arranging to send foreign aid into the country. But I’m not sure how thrilled they’re going to be with today’s news. In yet another example of needing to be careful what you wish for, the Associated Press is reporting this week that Taliban fighters have begun moving back over the northeastern border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, shoring up the local Taliban forces (Tehrik-e-Taliban or TTP) and exerting control over a region they previously lost to a Pakistani military operation nearly a decade ago. American military analysts have long understood that many TTP fighters had moved into Afghanistan during the war and worked with Afghanistan’s Taliban. Now it appears that they may believe they can achieve a similar victory in the neighboring nation.

In Pakistan’s rugged tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan, a quiet and persistent warning is circulating: The Taliban are returning.

Pakistan’s own Taliban movement, which had in years past waged a violent campaign against the Islamabad government, has been emboldened by the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

They seem to be preparing to retake control of the tribal regions that they lost nearly seven years ago in a major operation by Pakistan’s military. Pakistani Taliban are already increasing their influence.

Reporters in the region have been hearing stories of TTP fighters collecting “surcharges” from local business operators. They cite the story of a contractor in the border region near Mir Ali who had taken a job to dig a small irrigation canal for a local farmer. He said the job was only worth about $5,000 but TTP fighters showed up and demanded that he pay more than $1,000 to them as some sort of fee. He couldn’t afford that much money out of the profit he made on the job and pleaded with them to compromise. One week later he was found dead from gunshot wounds.

This is going to complicate things considerably for Pakistan’s central government in Islamabad. There have been significant divisions between the civilian government and the military in Pakistan for quite a while. You will recall that it was the Pakistani military that was giving aid and shelter to Osama bin Laden while the civilian government claimed to still be allied with the United States and said that they knew nothing about it. (If you believe that one, I have a bridge you might be interested in purchasing.)

The TTP is its own organization, independent from the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the two are closely aligned and reportedly share resources on a regular basis. While the Pakistani government is cheering on the Taliban in Afghanistan, they may need to launch a renewed offensive against the TTP in their own country. Will the military even obey those orders if they come? And if they do, will they be willing to go into battle against their own allies to beat down the resurgent group?

If not, the Pakistani Taliban may be dreaming of much bigger things. Some of their fighters are now sporting advanced weapons and equipment, thanks to the hectic withdrawal of the United States from neighboring Afghanistan. Could they even be pondering attempting to overthrow the government in Islamabad the way the Taliban did in Kabul? That would be an ambitious goal to be sure, and Pakistan is still a nuclear power with formidable allies. But if they lose control of significant portions of their own military, who knows what might happen? We’ve lived to see some insane times, so I’m not ruling anything out at this point.