- Chief of Army Staff Asim Munir has to deal with violence across Pakistan imposed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
- Under Noor Wali’s leadership, the TTP demanded Pakistani military forces to decrease their presence in the country’s tribal areas.
- General Asim Munir has limited resources to spend on targeted military operations against the TTP while solving pressing political and economic challenges.
Why is General Asim Munir Hostile towards Noor Wali Mehsud?
Answer: After the cease-fire termination between Pakistan and the TTP, General Asim Munir has to counter the influx of attacks in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
On November 28, 2022, the Islamist militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ended the indefinite cease-fire secured in June of 2022 with the Pakistani government. The TTP’s leaders issued a statement calling its fighters to carry out attacks across the country in response to ongoing Pakistani Military operations against mujahideen in different areas of Pakistan.
Besides re-escalated militant activity, 2022 was already challenging for Pakistan on the domestic front. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ousting by a no-confidence vote in April; rallies across the country in support of Khan’s government; and retirement of long-serving Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Qamar Javed Bajwa have destabilised the country. The near-collapse of Pakistan’s economy; failing debt reserves; a pending IMF agreement for 2023 are all factors increasing poverty. On the international front, Pakistan is facing the US-China rivalry in the region, long-standing security challenges in Islamabad-Delhi relations over the contested region Kashmir, and overall strategic instability in South Asia
In late November 2022, General Asim Munir was appointed as the new Pakistani Chief of Army Staff. He is the first COAS who served both as a head of the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Director General of Military Intelligence. In Pakistan – a nuclear-armed country with a history of military rule — the Army Chief is arguably the most powerful position due to the army´s major influence on Pakistani domestic and foreign affairs, particularly towards Afghanistan and India.
Alongside political and economic challenges, General Asim Munir has to deal with Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and violence across Pakistan imposed by current TTP leader Noor Wali Mehsud. Originating from Pakistani tribal areas, the TTP is a byproduct of the US-led ‘war on terror’ and its intra-jihadi politics which followed the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. At that time many Pakistani jihadists who fought on behalf of the Pakistani government in Afghanistan turned against the Pakistani state, angered by its cooperation with Washington. The TTP members started sheltering al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban members, which eventually grew into a more formal alliance. After the Afghan Taliban’s takeover in 2021, the TTP renewed its pledge of allegiance to its ally.
Since the TTP’s organisational establishment in 2007, militants conducted numerous attacks across Pakistan. One of the deadliest attacks dates back to 2014, when militants stormed an army-run primary and secondary school in Peshawar, killing 150 people. In 2022 alone, the TTP and its affiliated groups conducted 367 attacks across Pakistan with heightened frequency in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, which is a 27 percent increase from 2021.
The TTP militants are situated in tribal areas along the Durand Line, which are not under the direct administrative control of the Pakistani government. After the Peshawar school attack, Pakistan started constructing a security fence along the border to prevent militant movement, which contributed to tensions with both the Afghan Taliban government and the TTP militants. Particularly, the crossing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been used by the TTP members for years as a retreat passage to its bases in Afghanistan.
What does Noor Wali Mehsud want?
Answer: Noor Wali Mehsud demands decrease of Pakistani military presence in the tribal areas, which will allow him to integrate the TTP into Pakistani political landscape and consequently legitimise his position.
Current TTP leader Noor Wali Mehsud is described as “the most ‘intellectual’ of the TTP leaders”. Similar to other Islamist groups, it is on Mehsud’s agenda to impose Sharia law-based autonomy across Pakistan, particularly in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Noor Wali is a religious scholar and has considerable experience in training for and carrying out jihad.
Since coming out as the TTP leader in 2018, he has been actively reunifying TTP. Noor Wali also changed the dynamic of power from central-based decision-making, which contributed to the group’s desintegration, to a more ‘federal’ approach, which allowed him to build a stronger network inside Pakistan and attract more supporters in tribal areas. At the same time, he changed the TTP’s initial agenda of overthrowing the Pakistani government and now argues more in terms of the secession of the Pashtun-populated areas as his grand aim.
Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the Pakistani government, with the help of the Afghan Taliban government, held numerous peace talks with the TTP in Kabul, which resulted in temporary cease-fire agreements. In June of 2022 the TTP made two major demands. Firstly, the group demanded that Pakistani military forces lessen their presence in the country’s former tribal areas, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Secondly, the TTP wants the reverse of the 2018 merger of the tribal areas into mainland Pakistan through an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution – known as FATA merger. The TTP insisted that the FATA merger reversal was non-negotiable.
From a geopolitical perspective, Noor Wali’s strong position on merger reversal is considered as an attempt to integrate the TTP into Pakistani political landscape, legitimising his position in tribal areas. At the same time, having ties to the Afghan Taliban, the FATA merger reversal could bring Noor Wali an opportunity to create a buffer zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which would elevate the groups’ political status while securing the Taliban’s support. Additionally, access to the Durand Line would allow militants to determine a share in a cross-border black economy, creating funds from which go to the financing of the TTP offensives.
The Pakistani government did not accept Noor Wali’s primary demand, and used the dialogue to lure senior TTP commanders out of the tribal areas to the negotiating table to target and kill several of them. It also continued conducting military operations against mujahideen despite the TTP’s repeated warnings not to take action, which led to cease-fire termination in November 2022. In December the TTP carried out a suicide attack at a police checkpoint in Islamabad and took hostages at a Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) centre in Bannu, followed by killings of intelligence officers in Punjab province and the deadliest attack since 2014 in Peshawar, with over 100 people killed on the January 30th, 2023.
What does General Asim Munir want?
Answer: The primary security goal of General Asim Munir is to minimise the TTP threat and push militants closer to the Durand Line.
Considering General Asim Munir’s previous positions as the Inter-Services Intelligence and military head and minimal political record, the data which would allow comprehensive person-level analysis remains insufficient. However, given Pakistan’s political landscape and the hierarchical and carefully chosen command structure of the Pakistani military, COAS analysis has to be conducted based on the policymaking style of his close associate and predecessor – retired Chief of mayArmy Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, and analysed in the context of the historical role of the COAS in addressing Pakistan’s political, economic and security challenges.
The primary security goal for the newly appointed COAS is to minimise the TTP threat. During negotiations in July of 2022 the TTP had an opportunity to regroup and expand its influence in tribal areas. Thus, the main steps General Asim Munir has to take are focusing all available resources on targeted military operations against the TTP to at least push them back closer to the Durand Line and trying to restore stale relationships of military establishment with the Pashtun population, in particular in relation to the tribal areas.
On the grand scale, Pakistan remains isolated on the international stage, left to deal with the economic crisis and unstable political situation after Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ousting by a no-confidence vote in April 2022. Additionally, current (2023) civil disturbances and demonstrations in favour of Khan as well as attempts to prevent his appearing in court in March 2023 for corruption charges further antagonise parts of the population.
Thus one of the few ways in which the military establishment can act without worsening the already complicated political landscape or exhausting scarce economic resources, is by pressuring the Afghan Taliban government to control the TTP militants displaced on the Afghan side of the border. COAS Asim Munir has briefly dealt with the Afghan Taliban during his term as an Inter-Services Intelligence Chief and pressured Taliban leaders to negotiate with the US.
What is General Asim Munir doing?
Answer: General Asim Munir is using all available resources to conduct selective intelligence and military operations against the TTP on Pakistani soil.
After the suicide bombing in Islamabad on December 2022, the Pakistani government hinted at a possibility of a military offensive against the TTP fighters on Afghan territories. This was followed by the Kabul statement which denied the presence of militants on their soil and warned Pakistan not to compromise their territorial integrity. Pressuring Kabul into working around some sort of legal resolution remains the main tactic of Islamabad since the TTP’s resurgence, as Pakistan’s economy lacks sufficient resources to conduct cross-border airstrikes.
However, the Afghan Taliban continues to provide the militants with a safe haven and portray the attacks as a Pakistani internal issue. Even if Pakistan eventually decides to conduct targeted military operations, it will further strain an already collapsing economy and aggravate tensions with the Afghan Taliban government, which is not favourable for Pakistan’s geopolitical agenda. As of March 2023, General Munir remains focused on selective intelligence and military operations against the TTP’s mujahideen on Pakistani soil.
At the same time, Pakistan is seeking assurances from the international community, particularly the US, on the TTP issue. Currently, both states are increasing security cooperation.
Pakistan has historically been the closest state to Afghanistan with developed infrastructure and, in some sense, acted as the escape route for Afghan refugees. Since January 2023 there has been a wave of detentions and deportations among Afghans who have crossed the border since the Taliban came to power. By hardening its stance against Afghan citizens, Pakistan is sending a strong signal to Kabul to influence the Taliban to stop supporting the TTP.
Who is winning and what about you?
Answer: Pakistan remains in severe economic decline whilst exhausting the already crumbling economy with security operations against the TTP’s resurgence.
On the one hand, Noor Wali has arguably more power and influence in tribal areas than before the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, which allowed him to end the cease-fire with the Pakistani government without serious consequences, despite being a non-state actor. Moreover, the long-standing requirement of the FATA merger reversal suggests that Noor Wali is determined both in the TTP’s operational capability to achieve the goal and has enough power to consider himself as a candidate for tribal areas representation in the Pakistani political landscape.
On the other hand, the resources and power General Asim Munir holds at the state level are incomparable to those of Noor Wali. The Pakistani Military establishment has a long history of dealing with both foreign terrorist fighters and homegrown militants like the TTP and according to Pakistani officials, Islamabad has been successful in capturing the militants responsible for the attacks.
On a larger scale, Pakistan remains in severe economic decline whilst exhausting the already crumbling economy with security operations. The Military establishment does not have sufficient resources to launch either a full-scale domestic operation or conduct cross-border strikes against the TTP. The Afghan Taliban government’s position on the matter adds to Pakistan’s challenges in response to the TTP’s resurgence. Kabul remains incoherent to Pakistan’s requests to control the TTP, as it both cannot afford to lose its only ally on the international stage and does not want to worsen its relationship with the part of Taliban supporting the TTP.