Umar, a high school student, vanished from his home in northwestern Pakistan last month. Weeks later, he sent a brief message on WhatsApp to his family members from neighboring Afghanistan.
“I’ve joined the TTP. This is a final goodbye,” wrote the 17-year-old, according to his father.
Umar, whose family requested that his real name be protected for security reasons, is among the scores of boys and men who have been recruited by the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group in the region in recent weeks, according to local intelligence officials.
The TTP’s recruitment drive has coincided with the militant group, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, resurrecting its 15-year insurgency against Islamabad.
I fear the situation is not heading in the right direction and the number of TTP attacks will grow if the peace talks fail completely.”-- Saleem Mehsud, Pakistani researcher and journalist
The TTP ended its monthslong cease-fire with Islamabad in late November, following more than a year of inconclusive peace talks. Since November 28, the militants have launched a wave of deadly attacks targeting Pakistani security personnel.
The TTP was blamed for a December 18 attack near the northwestern city of Bannu that killed four police officers and wounded four others. Last month, TTP militants ambushed a police patrol in the same area, killing six policemen.
The TTP has also claimed attacks in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan, where four people were killed and 26 wounded when a suicide bomber targeted a police truck on November 30.
The sharp rise in attacks has led to fears among Pakistanis that violence in the region is likely to surge in the year ahead. Even before the cease-fire ended, hundreds of TTP fighters had returned to their former strongholds in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in recent months, carrying out targeted killings and extorting locals.
The TTP was driven out of its bases in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt by a major military offensive in 2014. Many of its leaders and fighters took refuge across the mountainous border in eastern Afghanistan, where they live under the protection of the Afghan Taliban.
'We Don't Feel Safe'
The reappearance of the TTP in Pakistan has terrified locals.
During its brutal rule, the militants imposed their extremist version of Islam in areas that they controlled in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, severely curbing freedoms and rights, including those of women. Targeted killings, bomb attacks, extortion, and harassment dominated daily life in some areas.
The Pakistani military campaigns that pushed out the TTP across the border took a heavy toll on locals, killing thousands of civilians, uprooting millions, and causing widescale destruction.
Shafqatullah and his family were forced to flee their home in the district of North Waziristan, a former stronghold of the TTP, in 2014. His family, like many others from the region, became internal refugees and lived in poverty for years.
“We returned to our area in 2017 with the hope that the situation will get better,” said the father of four. “But things are heading in the wrong direction again. We fear that we will be displaced again.”
Shafqatullah said he is planning to move his family and electrical appliances business to the relative safety of Bannu.
On December 6, nine people, including five militants, two security personnel, and two civilians were killed in three separate attacks in North Waziristan. The district has been the scene of almost daily clashes between government forces and TTP fighters in recent weeks.
“We don’t feel safe in our own villages and towns because of the lawlessness,” said Eid Rahman Wazir, another resident of North Waziristan. “We see that the clouds of war are gathering again.”
'Major' Challenge To Pakistan
The TTP claimed 59 attacks in November, the highest of any month since at least 2018. In the first half of December, the militants claimed 30 attacks. Many of them targeted members of the military, police force, and intelligence agencies.
Experts said the spike in TTP attacks reflects the growing military strength of the militant group.
The Afghan Taliban, which seized power in Kabul in August 2021, has been accused of providing safe havens to the TTP, a close ideological and organizational ally. The U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year has also allowed the TTP to operate more freely, experts have said.
In a report presented to the Senate, Pakistan's National Counter-Terrorism Authority said the yearlong peace talks and cease-fire with the TTP further emboldened and strengthened the militants. The report said the militant group increased the “magnitude of its activities” and expanded its reach from remote border areas to urban areas in northwestern Pakistan.
“In 2022, the TTP mounted increasing number of attacks, expanded the geographies of its activities, and showed considerable political cohesion, all the while enjoying political asylum and haven from the government of the Taliban,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior analyst at the United States Institute of Peace think tank in Washington. “This positioned the TTP to pose a major long-term cross-border challenge to Pakistan.”
Saleem Mehsud, a Pakistani researcher and journalist, said he predicts a “bleak” year ahead.
“I fear the situation is not heading in the right direction and the number of TTP attacks will grow if the peace talks fail completely,” he said.
'Major Military Action'
A peace deal appeared to be in sight after the TTP declared an indefinite cease-fire in June. But the mysterious killings of several TTP commanders, TTP attacks in Pakistan, and Islamabad’s targeting of TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan in recent months dented hopes for a negotiated settlement.
The talks were held in Afghanistan and brokered by the Afghan Taliban, which is a longtime ally of Islamabad.
It seems that the suspended peace talks will end soon, and there will be little chance of another peace initiative with the group soon.”-- Analyst Abdul Said
During the summer, the Pakistani media revealed the terms of the proposed peace deal. Reports indicated that Islamabad had agreed to release hundreds of detained and convicted TTP members. Additionally, it agreed to the withdrawal of a large portion of the tens of thousands of Pakistani troops stationed in northwestern Pakistan. Islamabad also agreed to implement Islamic Shari'a law in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Reports said the two sides had yet to agree on retracting democratic reforms in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and whether thousands of TTP militants could return with their arms and keep their organization intact.
The proposed peace deal triggered widespread outrage in Pakistan. Locals in the northwest have staged scores of protests and sit-ins in recent months. The demonstrators have also directed their anger at the authorities for turning a blind eye to the return of the TTP militants to Pakistan.
When announcing the end of its cease-fire on November 28, the TTP did not rule out peace negotiations with Islamabad. But experts said, at least for now, reviving the peace process appears a tall order.
“It seems that the suspended peace talks will end soon, and there will be little chance of another peace initiative with the group soon,” said Abdul Said, an analyst who researches militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Analysts say Islamabad is likely to adopt a fight-and-talk strategy in the year ahead. Pakistan, they said, could put more pressure on the Afghan Taliban to help convince the TTP to halt its attacks and negotiate a peace settlement.
“But if not, which is plausible given the deterioration in Pakistan-Taliban ties, we might see major military action by Pakistan in 2023,” said Mir of the United States Institute of Peace.