Over the past few months, the government in Pakistan has tried to negotiate deals with two very different radical Islamist groups: the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Tehrik-e-Labbaiq Pakistan (TLP). The state’s attempts to negotiate a cessation of hostilities with the TTP, which has been responsible for much violence in Pakistan and has been on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations for more than a decade, have failed. However, Islamabad’s much broader capitulations to the TLP appear to have worked – an outcome that should be alarming to U.S. policymakers, with the potential to worsen Pakistan’s already high socio-cultural tensions and further strain its relations with the West.
A Failed Cease-Fire with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan
The TTP has been responsible for much bloodshed in Pakistan since it came into being in 2007 as an umbrella group of local Pakistani and foreign jihadist factions fleeing into the country’s northwest from Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S. invasion. Pakistan has targeted the group even as it has tacitly supported the Afghan Taliban, whereas the now-defunct U.S.-backed Afghan government and India both allegedly supported the TTP. The TTP and the Taliban in Afghanistan are often described as “ideological twins,” in that the TTP aspires to follow in the footsteps of its Afghan counterparts and establish its myopic version of shariah in Pakistan.
Recently, the TTP has been galvanized by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, and the caretaker Taliban government in Afghanistan has played a role in mediating between the Pakistani government and the militants. The Pakistani government announced a month-long cease-fire on Nov. 8, 2021, pending further negotiations with the group, but the extra negotiation time proved fruitless after the TTP demanded that Pakistan release the group’s imprisoned senior leadership, undo the merger of federally administered regions into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and implement the TTP’s version of shariah across the country. A renewal of Pakistan-TTP negotiations presently seems unlikely, especially given growing acrimony between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban over Pakistan’s fencing of the Afghan-Pakistani border, also known as the Durand Line.
Pakistani officials are now attempting to pressure the Afghan Taliban into taking action, calling it a “test case” that would help the interim Taliban government establish its security credentials to the broader international community. It is unlikely that the Taliban have the capability and resolve to prevent the TTP from using Afghanistan to launch attacks in Pakistan, given that the Taliban themselves are struggling to prevent their hard-line supporters from joining the swelling ranks of the Islamic State. The failure of the Afghan Taliban-endorsed cease-fire between the Pakistani state and the TTP will likely unleash another spike of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, which could further strain Pakistan’s relations with the emergent Taliban emirate in Afghanistan and add pressure to an already cash-strapped Pakistani economy.
Tehrik-e-Labbaiq Pakistan Gains Momentum
The TLP is not an armed group but an extremist socio-political movement that now has widespread support in Pakistan. It was launched by hard-line cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi in 2016 to oppose the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who in 2011 shot and killed Salman Taseer, the governor of the country’s largest province, Punjab. Taseer had been trying to secure the release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death in a blasphemy case. Bibi’s acquittal by the Pakistani Supreme Court in 2018, which enabled her to leave the country later that year, gave more oxygen to the TLP, which positioned itself as a defender against attempts to blaspheme against the Prophet Muhammad. This zero-tolerance stance toward blasphemy has allowed the TLP to gain widespread support zero-tolerance stance toward blasphemy has allowed the TLP to gain widespread support.
Not content with being a social movement, it has tried its hand at politics, apparently enabled by the military to undermine support for the ruling Nawaz Sharif government in 2017. The following year, the TLP contested the general elections, and while it did not manage to win any legislative seats, it received over 20 million votes, making it the sixth largest party.
In 2020, the TLP began to call for the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan after French President Emmanuel Macron referred to Samuel Paty, a French schoolteacher who was beheaded after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class, as a “quiet hero.” In April 2021, thousands of TLP activists staged large, violent protests across the country, with the latest one in October resulting in several deaths, including those of four police officers.
Then on Oct. 31, the Pakistani government announced an official peace deal with the TLP. Details were slow to emerge, but the Pakistani government has revoked the TLP’s ban, released Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s son Saad Rizvi from prison, and facilitated the group’s commemoration of Khadim’s death anniversary. It also appears to have agreed to put the matter of expelling the French ambassador up for parliamentary debate. These concessions could give the TLP an opportunity to become a powerful political force in the 2023 elections. opportunity to become a powerful political force in the 2023 elections.
Pakistan’s security establishment previously has used Islamist groups as tools to shape the country’s internal politics. The ascendency of groups like the TLP was motivated by a post-9/11 compulsion to court seemingly more moderate religious factions such as those from the Barelvi sect, which at the time were not yet as radicalized as they are today. Even the international community, including the United States, considered Barelvis to provide a good counterbalance to the influence of extremist Deobandi groups (like the the TTP), which ironically had been nourished earlier during the era of proxy warfare against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
However, not all Barelvi groups in Pakistan are “moderate” adherents of mystical or syncretic Sufism. The TLP itself encapsulates the extremist Barelvi posture, which has weaponized the notion of perceived blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad to not only persecute religious minorities but to also pressure the state to concede to its increasingly ambitious demands, such as taking a stronger stance against alleged condoners of blasphemy in other countries. (It should be noted here that the TTP and TLP do not represent the broader historic religious schools of thought that are known as Deobandi and Barelvi. Instead, the groups represent radical manifestations of their respective sectarian milieus.)
The more progressive elements in Pakistani civil society are rightly concerned about a violent socio-political group like the TLP being accommodated so generously, which in turn has emboldened the group; for example, TLP supporters lynched a Sri Lankan factory supervisor in Sialkot in December over blasphemy accusations. While government officials have been quick to dismiss any link between their deal and the incident, the TLP deal will continue hounding policy makers. If the Pakistani parliament remains reluctant to expel the French ambassador, given the potential damage it could do to Pakistan’s already fraught relations with the West, the TLP could use this excuse to remobilize and gather further momentum.
Implications for Pakistan
While Pakistan’s failed attempt to broker a cease-fire with the TTP was at least an attempt to avert further conflict, its reconciliation with the TLP is much harder to justify, and its implications are no less damaging. It is unfortunate that the Pakistani state opted for short-term gains such as avoiding political agitation and trying to woo the TLP to further its own interests, despite the long-term costs of further emboldening this violent religio-political group.
It seems unlikely that Pakistan will be able to reach a negotiated settlement with the TTP despite mediation efforts by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The inability of the Afghan Taliban to effectively rein in the TTP may create some options for resuming counterterrorism cooperation between the U.S and Pakistan, but it will also heighten the threat of rival states using insurgent groups to engage in proxy warfare. The political legitimization of the TLP also will have lingering harmful impacts, including shrinking space for already beleaguered religious minorities, an undermining of Pakistan’s efforts to highlight the rising religious intolerance in neighboring India, and further reinforcing Pakistan’s own image as a religiously intolerant state.
Dr. Syed Mohammed Ali is a professor of anthropology, international development, and human security courses at Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and George Washington universities. Dr. Ali has two decades of experience working on major international development challenges including governance problems, issues of marginalization, and natural and man-made disasters. Ali is the author of Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan: The Impact of State and Donor Interventions on Farmers (Routledge, 2015).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not reflective of an official policy or position of the New Lines Institute.