To weigh in on the Baloch- Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) equation amid the Afghanistan-Pakistan tensions, Mark Kinra speaks with Abdul Basit, a Research Fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore….reports Asian Lite News
As AfPak simmers, there is considerable speculation that secular Baloch rebels and the anti-Pakistan Islamists under the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) banner maybe, for now, passively collaborating with each. To weigh in on the Baloch-TTP equation, and more, Mark Kinra spoke with Abdul Basit, a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Basit specializes in issues of politics, violence, religious extremism, terrorism, and security in South Asia.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q) There has been a lot of speculation regarding growing convergence between the Baloch groups and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Do you think TTP is lending a helping hand to Baloch in some way or other?
A) This is one of those important but difficult questions to which circumstantial evidence can be presented as more concrete primary evidence is not there. For instance, TTP has been growing in the backyard of Baloch separatist groups like the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF). There have been groups from Balochistan who have joined TTP. So TTP has made a mark in Balochistan for sure.
Ideologically Baloch Separatists are very secular and TTP is a hardcore Islamist organization, which wants a theocratic state in Pakistan through armed struggle or what they believe is Jihad, while the goal of the Baloch separatists is to have a Baloch state. There is no similarity between these two broader movements. The only thing that brings them together is their animosity towards the Pakistani state, which is the common enemy. The other common factor between the two is that both are ethnic groups with some genuine grievances so they feel as oppressed ethnic groups at the periphery.
In fact, if you go through TTP’s propaganda, then it is logical for these two entities to combine their courses at some level. We have seen TTP continuously bromance and extend an olive branch to the Baloch separatists. In the past Baloch separatists were very vocal in condemning TTP and its agenda, but recently there has been this deafening silence from Baloch Separatists concerning the inroads of TTP into Balochistan, TTP’s outreach in its propaganda publications and this silence can be construed as their consent.
There is a lot that we need to analyse including that these groups are very turf-conscious. They do not allow anyone in their backyard and react very brutally. But Baloch separatists have not said a word, let alone react brutally or violently. Baloch Separatists have adopted suicide terrorism by learning this skill from TTP. . However, Baloch separatists denied this and stated that they had these capabilities even before they and did not learn from TTP. In any case, if you put all these points together their silence, organizational learning from TTP, operating in close vicinity, coexisting in the same conflict theatre, sharing weapons routes or networks, or getting money from similar people. It is very strange to assume that their paths haven’t crossed and circumstantially one can speculate that there is some form of cooperation there. I have got pushback from relevant people and my counter-response to them is whatever you tell me privately why don’t you share it publicly on your letterhead officially that will kill all the speculation, which is not to open another front and focus on separatist insurgency. I can only say that they don’t have to open a front to say that they do not cooperate which leads me to believe that some kind of bromance between them.
Q) On one side TTP is being shifted to Northern Afghanistan and on the other side TTP is increasing its footprints in Balochistan, with the latest wilayah being formed by merging in Southern Balochistan. How do you see these movements?
A) Relocation to northern Afghanistan has not been confirmed; no one has been shifted to be very honest but the proposal was discussed between Pakistan and the Taliban regime considering the tension between them. The proposal stated to move TTP away from the border as the casualty rate was getting high and was not sustainable so the Taliban relocated them from the border area but TTP were still there but not close to the border. Afghans have an identity card known as Tazkira which you can show and go anywhere. Recently Tazkiras have been cancelled and this system has been attached to the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), the Intel wing of the Taliban, so now they have to report to the GDI, earlier there were no restrictions. There are about 40-45,000 TTP along with their families and if Pakistan wants to relocate will have to provide money then only the Taliban might move them to Northern Afghanistan. Concerning Wilayah, it is on paper only; if such is the scenario, Baloch separatists will not have any issues with any such development considering it is more propaganda and less substance.
Q) Due to the rise in TTP’s influence in Balochistan, do you suspect any conflict between TTP and Baloch Separatists?
A) You cannot predict the future for a conflict theatre like Pakistan which is competitive, fluid and ever-evolving, currently, I do not foresee any conflict but I cannot rule out one. Balochistan has a diverse ethnic population of both Baloch and Pashtoons, most of TTP’s activities and attacks are in Pashtoon areas and not in Baloch areas, so if they are not encroaching into the Baloch areas, I think Baloch separatists are not very uncomfortable with TTP being there. There have been no instances of any inter-group fighting between the Baloch separatists and TTP but we have to wait and see what happens.
Q) Recently, a new militant group has emerged in Balochistan, Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP). Do you think it is an offshoot of Daesh or TTP? And why do you think such a group has emerged in Balochistan?
A) TJP is a front group of TTP, there were rebel elements within TTP who were hitting soft targets without taking permission from TTP. Attacking soft targets is a violation of TTP’s code of conduct. TTP created this front group which has Pakistani and Afghan elements plus Al Qaeda chipping its fighters making it an umbrella group where multiple groups are coordinating or cooperating or pulling in fighters. If you look at the attack pattern of TJP, most of the attacks have been carried out between Balochistan’s Pashtoon belt and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and are either suicide attacks or commando-style attacks like 26/11 of Mumbai.
When TJP was carrying out these suicide attacks, TTP did not carry out any major suicide attacks which drives one to say that TTP outsources its suicide operations to TJP and second TJP attacks looked like typical ISKP. Both ISKP and TJP claimed the same attacks but there was no conflict of claims between TTP and TJP. Recently, friction emerged because of which a lot of speculations were clarified between TTP and TJP, an attack was claimed by TJP but later TTP’s commander who belongs to Jamat ul Ahrar blew the cover by saying they attacked as revenge for the killing of their commander – Umar Khalid Khurasani, who was killed in Afghanistan last year.
The commander questioned why TTP’s central shura was not claiming the attack and rather attributing it to TJP or allowing a group like TJP to claim it, so TTP fired that commander and acknowledged that TJP is a brother jihadi organization. So, when you call someone a brother that means there are links. This is the first time the claim has been made. I think TJP was created so that TTP could carry out high-profile attacks along with a plausible deniability option in case the Taliban pressurizes them to stand down, they can put it on TJP which seems a smart move. Also if Al Qaeda becomes active in Pakistan then the international community’s concerns will grow because it’s a transnational group and if Al Qaeda finds space in Pakistan; carrying out attacks will not be seen as Pakistan under attack because Al Qaeda will be rebuilding its cross-national linkages but if you package Al Qaeda as TJP, then it will be worrisome more for Pakistan and less from an international standpoint. Under the Doha agreement, the Taliban are under obligation to stop Al Qaeda and other groups from using Afghan soil for attacks in other countries and if Al Qaeda is using Afghanistan for attacks in Pakistan, it’s a violation of the Doha Agreement. So TJP was this nice arrangement to couch all these groups, deflect the Taliban’s pressure, maintain plausible deniability and still get away with the attacks.