tehreek-e-taliban pakistan

Written by Ali Haider Saleem 11:47 am Pakistan, Published Content, Research Papers

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan: How Pakistan Contained the Menacing Insurgency

The paper highlights how the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist group, lost its momentum. The paper also discusses how the political and military leadership (with public support) contributed to taking decisive action against it. While evaluating the TTP’s behavioral patterns, the author considers case studies on China and Sri Lanka, among others.
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Mr Ali Haider Saleem graduated with a BSc in Economics from NUST and an MSc in Public Policy from Queen Mary University of London. He has worked at the National Defence University and Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. His research interests include sustainable development, regional integration, and security cooperation.

Defending the Country

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) carried out their terrorist activities for several years across the country. The list of TTP’s targets included military personnel, politicians, foreign delegates, and civilians. Probably the most barbaric TTP’s activity took place in December 2014 when gunmen opened fire in an army-run school in Peshawar killing more than a hundred children.

Dealing with the ever-present threat of terrorist attacks became a strenuous task for the government and armed forces. For them, the ability of this organization to inflict such devastation and to continue to recruit more and more fighters was a huge concern. Both political and military strategies were sought to bring peace to the country or at least curtail their activities. Much to the disappointment of the government, however, the political solutions failed time and time again.

All the breakthroughs turned out to be temporary, as one side blamed the other for breaking the clauses. There was a constant divide amongst the major political parties on how to tackle the issue of terrorism in Pakistan: the religious parties were more sympathetic towards the TTP and mainly accused the West of sabotaging peace in the region, while others believed that military action could further spread extremism in the society as it turns the locals against the state which is just the kind of situation the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan exploits.

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In spite of all these objections, the growing pressure from the public and constant terrorist attacks forced the political and military leadership to launch a major offensive by the name of Zarb-e-Azb. The launch of the operation in June 2014 resulted in the killing of hundreds and the recovery of occupied territory.

However, the attack in Peshawar which is termed as Pakistan’s 9/11, six months after Zarb-e-Azb showed that their ability to carry out terrorist activities was still growing. For them, terrorism was a means to drive out their enemies and eventually take charge of political affairs. The aim of this paper is to explain why they were not able to make a meaningful breakthrough towards the quest of implementing their political objectives in the country.

TTP’s Political Objectives

In this regard, studies on countering insurgencies have also been evaluated to highlight how the state was able to thwart attempts of a takeover by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Kiras (2013) defines terrorism as, “the sustained use of violence against symbolic or civilian targets by small groups for political purposes”. As such, many scholars believe that terrorism is an effective way to achieve political objectives.

Lake (2002) argues that it enables the terrorists to make better bargains relative to their opponents. By stating the evidence of Hezbollah being successful in compelling the US and France to withdraw their forces, and the takeover of Tamil areas by the Tamil tigers from the Sri Lankan government, Atran (2004) claims that terrorists are generally quite capable of achieving their objectives.

Pape (2003) suggests that the rise in suicide bombings over the last few decades is due to the fact that terrorists know they work and lead to political gains. Abrahms (2006) rejects such claims and considers the supporting examples irrelevant because he believes they are only tactical victories that are largely by-products of other ambitions altogether.

For example, Pape (2003) considers the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and West bank in 1994 as victories but Abrahms (2006) says that they never achieved political objectives as the number of Israeli settlers still increased at that time. According to him, the effectiveness of militancy should be measured by comparing objectives with outcomes.

In the case of Pakistan, militancy was spreading, and suicide attacks were indeed on the rise, but Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan never came close to achieving its primary political objectives. This is mostly due to the ruthless approach this group has adopted; many other movements in the past that have chosen such a path have suffered the same fate.

The study conducted by Abrahms (2006) shows that the groups which heavily target the civilians never manage to achieve their political objectives. Most terrorist organizations have maximalist objectives like changing the ideology of the state. While on the other hand, groups that have limited objectives like gaining control of territory are more likely to succeed.

Dahl (1961) states that maximalist objectives make disputes difficult to be resolved and state representatives are less likely to offer concessions. It is therefore pertinent to note that the nature of an insurgency’s demands determines whether their movement will be met with triumph or not. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan saw itself as a revolutionary force.

The Unmatched Force of the Public

Historically, armed revolutions have been successful only when they have had popular support. Public support is considered absolutely critical for such struggles. Von Clausewitz suggested it as one of the integral parts of a movement. Mao also emphasized the importance of gaining support and, according to him, establishing moral superiority is the first stage of insurgency (Kiras, 2013 p. 8). History is layered with numerous examples of revolutionary movements that used support from the masses as a catalyst for success.

The same, however, cannot be said of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Kiras (2013) adds that almost every terrorist campaign lasts for decades and while terrorists can generate support through intimidation temporarily, this tactic is unreliable in the long run. Support from the population is not only needed by the insurgents, as Galula (1964) asserts, but also sought by the counterinsurgents as well.

Governments need to take firm and credible actions to deny insurgents from gaining popularity. Thompson (1966) extends this point by suggesting that counterinsurgents must have a concrete political plan and it must be in accordance with the law. According to Byman (2009), negotiations are the most important of those methods. This soft approach has many critics, but history also shows that the use of force can be ineffective or counterproductive.

Critics argue that initiating talks with terrorists gives their activities legitimacy and is a sign that a government is recognizing the insurgent organization as a legal entity, which is a political loss for the state and its citizens alike. Neumann (2007) says that those who use such tactics should never be rewarded. Terrorists often see this as a weakness of the other side and in the meanwhile, they regroup and rearm.

However, it is also believed that a political solution is always desirable for the state and so negotiation can never truly be off the table. Hussain (2009) says that terrorism cannot be eliminated through the use of brute force. Like many others, he is also of the opinion that the beliefs and mindset which lead people towards extremism must be tackled at the grassroots level. If successful, this method turns out to be more effective and less destructive.

However, governments have often taken military action against insurgents due to deadlock in negotiations or under domestic and international pressure. Taber (1972) takes a more absolutist approach and insinuates that extermination is the only option left to deal with terrorists who are not willing to surrender.

The negotiations that have taken place over the years have turned out to be futile anyway. The main objectives of this group were to enforce Sharia law, resist Western occupation in Afghanistan, and wage war against the Pakistani Armed Forces. All these were linked together in a way and form the basis of TTP’s ideology.

Their activities and short-term successes did not help in delivering their objectives. The political system which Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan opposed was also getting stronger. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan had warned people from participating in the 2008 elections and even carried out bombings on political rallies prior to the elections but even then there was a decent voter turnout throughout the country.

Five years later, history was made when one political party completed its entire term for the first time and the next government was also formed through a democratic process. It has to be acknowledged that counter-terrorism policies of the competing parties were a strong factor in deciding who to vote for in 2013.

TTP in the Political Arena

The religious parties which were seen as more sympathetic towards the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan achieved little success as compared to the more liberal ones. In the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged as the dominant party in the elections. Although PTI favored a softer approach against the TTP and considered negotiations quite necessary, its overall ideology and policies were quite opposite to those of the TTP.

In its election manifesto, for instance, the PTI called for educational reforms across the country. In order to promote equality and give equal opportunities to children from every background, the PTI proposed its ‘One Education System’ in place of three separate ones, namely Urdu medium, English medium, and the Madrassah system.

This proposal meant that the Madrassah system on which TTP relied heavily to recruit and radicalize the youth was to be rectified. Furthermore, PTI also showed strong commitment towards the education of girls which again is something that the TTP stood vehemently against. The TTP targeted educational institutes for girls in KPK and various incidents took place which the TTP saw as a way to discourage girls from attending schools or to make parents refrain from sending their daughters to acquire education.

In 2009, when the TTP took control of Swat, they imposed a ban on girls’ education and bombed their schools. The Pakistan army managed to reclaim Swat later that year, but the threat of TTP still persisted. Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girl who wrote a diary on life under TTP and became a campaigner for girls’ education, received plentiful media attention and appreciation from the local and international community.

In October 2012, she was shot multiple times by a TTP gunman in her school bus but luckily was able to recover from her wounds. Her courage to stand up against the terrorists earned her praise from different parts of the world. Despite the use of such extreme tactics and the likelihood of further actions, the TTP was not able to force the people to accept its way of life and in the following year, the National Assembly seats from Swat were won by candidates from PTI.

Another piece of history in the 2013 elections was made by Badam Zari who became the first-ever woman from tribal areas to contest for a national assembly seat (The Nation, 2013). The TTP did not approve of women playing any role in public affairs, but this development took place in a region where they had a relatively strong influence. The growing involvement of women in public life reflected the inability of TTP to impose its strict and highly conservative values on the people of Pakistan.

Comparisons with Other Movements

According to Von Clausewitz (1976), war is not independent, rather, it is a means for political intercourse and a crucial political instrument. An insurgency that engages with a state or its military on the basis of political ideology has very much the same characteristics. In this case, the battle for political supremacy is usually between an irregular force and a conventional force. The TTP members initiated a war to impose their own governance system in the country.

Like other rebel movements in different parts of the world, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan also relied on violent tactics to establish its authority. Those that have been successful had a wide range of factors that worked for them while TTP never had any strong foundation. Public support is perhaps the most vital component of a political struggle.

A Case of China

Clausewitz (1976) suggests that the foundation of a popular uprising is positive public opinion. In the late 1940s, the forces under Mao during China’s civil war were heavily outnumbered by those under the command of Chiang Kai-Shek, but due to poor economic policies, his government lost its popularity and allowed Mao’s communist party to extend its support base in the rural areas.

The land reform agenda of the communists was quite popular and their stress on building favorable public opinion proved decisive in the Chinese civil war (Chang, 1951). Mao described the relationship between his fighters and popular support as that of fish and sea where the guerillas were the fish that could not survive without the sea.

In his writings, Mao stated that in the first stage of insurgency, the guerillas develop their moral superiority amongst the locals alongside political indoctrination and recruitment of new fighters. The second stage also involves drawing support from the public after neutralizing the presence of the government.

In sum, there are three stages: strategic defensive, stalemate, and strategic offensive respectively (Tse-Tung, 1966). If we are to fit TTP’s progress under this approach then it would not be beyond the second stage. It is the stage where the insurgents have to fight a prolonged battle and wear down the enemy. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan struggled to match the strength of the opposition which effectively used its military superiority to weaken the position of the insurgents in various parts of Pakistan.

Without being allowed to sustain their presence in a particular area, they were restricted from establishing themselves in order to draw upon adequate physical and moral support from the locals. As a result, they were unable to stretch the enemy’s resources and charge ahead towards greater objectives. The approach given by Mao in ‘On Guerilla Warfare’ has turned out to be applicable in conflicts outside China as well.

Vietnam’s Vendetta

Viet Cong, the organization which fought against the United States during the Vietnam War, turned to Mao’s tactics as its commanders had seen them deliver success during the Chinese civil war and Sino-Japanese War. To replicate that, they also placed great value on support from the locals. As their tactics involved retreating during American attacks, they relied on the locals to provide them shelter (Davidson 1988).

While the Americans were inflicting collateral damage on the largely rural-based local population in their attempt to target the guerillas, the Viet Cong soldiers developed cordial relationships with the peasants which enabled them to maneuver themselves more effectively. Given the fact that insurgents are usually outnumbered by counterinsurgents, it becomes necessary for them to play their cards correctly and utilize every possible opening.

One of the strategies which they can apply is to convince the other side to have negotiations. A period of peace talks means a break from battle, thus providing insurgents the time to recover and rearm themselves. In view of many scholars, holding talks with terrorists is not a recommended approach because they should not be given any sort of legitimacy as it could strengthen their cause.

Negotiations with the TTP

To hold or not to hold talks with these kinds of groups is indeed a difficult decision for the government because it can backfire and be politically damaging. Despite all suspicions, the government of Pakistan initiated dialogue with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in September 2013 after taking all political parties into consideration. The TTP might have viewed the offer as a weakness on the other side and tried to exploit the situation by first setting unreasonable pre-conditions for dialogue and then carrying out unanticipated attacks.

Consequently, the Pakistani government came under further pressure to eliminate the option of negotiations and conduct an all-out operation against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The talks could never have been fruitful since both sides were not willing to make any compromises. The TTP was not willing to step back from their activities despite the efforts of political parties, while the government and security forces were reluctant to put national security at so much risk.

The demands presented by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan also reflected their maximalist objectives. As shown by Abrahms (2006), movements that set sights on changing ideology are more likely to fail in making headways as compared to those which have limited objectives like fighting against a foreign enemy or gaining territory.

As mentioned earlier, the Irish Republican Army can be used as a case in point, which aimed to unify Ireland and expel British rule from Northern Ireland. It carried out attacks in Northern Ireland and England for many years in lieu of this ambition. Eventually, it sought to resolve the issue through talks with Irish and British officials and turned towards peaceful means to attain its goals. These events also led to a political settlement over the governance of Northern Ireland.

By displaying flexibility, the insurgents were able to prolong their cause, while TTP’s rigid approach halted its ascendancy. Similarly, the Tamil Tigers, despite being defeated eventually, used terror to great effect in order to achieve the objective of establishing an independent state for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

They were not only able to resist the counter-insurgency forces for over two decades but also gained vast territory and established their authority in those parts during that time. In 2009, the Sri Lankan Army finally managed to put an end to the drawn-out rebellion. Being a terrorist organization that targeted civilians, it suffered the same fate as many other campaigns which had similar tactics in spite of having limited objectives.

The reason behind this, as given by Abrahms (2006), is that terrorist attacks have a high correspondence which ultimately results in miscommunication of their objectives. The short-term effects of terrorist attacks become the basis on which those who are targeted infer the objectives of the perpetrators, brushing aside their actual or stated objectives.

International Condemnation

In the case of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a very relevant example is the attack on Malala Yusufzai which generated strong condemnation at home and abroad. This act was not considered in isolation but viewed as a direct translation of TTP’s ideology. Like many previous attacks, it also served to portray them as extremists possessing a very narrow idea of how a society should be structured.

This incident received huge media coverage which further increased the negative perception about the organization. On Malala’s 16th birthday, Malala day was observed by the UN where leaders from different parts of the world pledged support for the education of girls not only in Pakistan but all over the world. She became the global face of this cause and a symbol of hope for those who were unable to get access to education.

Thus, the response triggered by TTP’s attack further intensified the commitment towards countering their agenda. Based on Abrahms’ (2006) findings, the probability of TTP’s failure was quite high as it was carrying attacks on civilians and striving for maximalist objectives, both of which have been proven counterproductive for insurgencies.

Pakistan’s Military Leadership

Another point that must be underlined here is that the services of military personnel are highly valued by Pakistanis. Those who belong to the armed forces are celebrated as protectors of the country from internal and external threats rather than serving the cause of any foreign force. The attacks on military men and their families also contributed to TTP’s disapproval in society. The question now arises of why the insurgents continue to use terrorism as a tactic if it does not yield results.

According to Yahya (2002), terrorists want to bring immediate attention to their cause and also want a shorter way to attain long-term objectives. He opines that changing the beliefs and values of society takes much more time than imposing fear. As they do not have access to resources which the state does and are also not interested to become part of the existing system, there are not many options left other than terrorism to challenge their opponents.

Setbacks Faced by the TTP

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan had the same limitations. Initially, when the law and order situation began to deteriorate, most Pakistanis placed the majority of the blame on American interference in the region. Their attacks were viewed mainly as retaliation to the Lal Masjid incident.

Public opinion polls show that 37% of Pakistanis in February 2007 were of the view that the US was responsible for the series of suicide attacks that had occurred in recent times. Moreover, 35% blamed foreign agencies for it and only 21% population placed the responsibility on extremists (Gilani, 2009).

However, the persistent use of such tactics in the coming years turned the majority of the Pakistanis against TTP. While some people rejected this movement from the beginning, others took time to form a dismissive opinion about it. The TTP’s bid to launch an Islamic revolution in the country was not embraced by the masses because neither their ideas nor their actions conformed to the true essence of Islam.

Many renowned Muslim scholars and leaders also denounced their methods. As a matter of fact, there are several other sources and sayings in Islam that go against the preachings of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the killings of innocent human beings. It is mentioned in the Holy Quran, “He who kills a soul unless it be (in legal punishment) for murder or for causing disorder and corruption on the earth will be as if he had killed all humankind; and he who saves a life will be as if he had saved the lives of all humankind,” (The Qur’an, Al-Ma’idah, 5:32).

In addition, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) made security one of the main priorities for Muslims by saying, “a Muslim is one from whose tongue and hands the other Muslims are secure”. He also said: “One who cannot be trusted and felt secured with, has no faith”. This shows that the activities of TTP have been in stark contradiction with the teachings of Islam from the beginning. Therefore, they were rejected as a true voice for Islam.

Another reason why their demands of imposing Shariah law have not been entertained is that the constitution of Pakistan is already quite dense with Shariah content. According to one of its articles, all laws should conform to the rulings of Islam which have been laid down in the Holy Quran and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad. Furthermore, Islam also orders strict actions against those who wage war against an Islamic community.

The Holy Quran says, “Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment,” (The Qur’an, Al-Ma’idah, 5:33).

The armed forces of Pakistan fought a war to preserve the ideology and values of Islam under the constitution of the country. To accomplish this task, the counter-insurgency forces were strongly backed and the public became more supportive of military operations over time. The laws against terrorism were in place before as well but the government had been reluctant to go on a full-scale offensive. It had to ensure that there would be no long-term consequences and convince the public that it is Pakistan’s own war.

It is indeed true that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan inflicted quite significant damage to the society and economy: the cost of fighting against terrorism and the losses incurred due to attacks were more than $100 billion (The Express Tribune, 2014). Furthermore, there was a decline in local and foreign investment due to an unfavorable environment. Thus, there were many indirect victims of TTP’s tactics as well. As the country could no longer bear the economic and human costs of terrorism, the state and counter-insurgency forces turned inflexible.

Because of TTP’s continued oppression against the people of Pakistan and efforts to destabilize the state, they were also viewed as India’s proxies. Some indicators of possible Indian backing for TTP activities include the ability to carry out highly sophisticated and planned attacks along with a large number of weapons in their hand without having any legal source of funding.

Pakistan’s Unified Effort

Having a non-patriotic image in the country is also a major reason for its failure because successful insurgencies in different parts of the world have commonly been spurred by patriotism. In Pakistan: A Hard Country, Lieven (2012) acknowledges that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was once a force to be reckoned with. They had most parts of FATA under their control and had also taken over districts of Swat and Buner, but he adds that a state has never been overthrown by a revolt that mainly relies on terrorism.

Furthermore, he points out that the Pakistani army is a strong and disciplined institution that is capable of defeating insurgencies which are proven by the success of the campaigns which were launched to recapture those areas in 2009. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan were unable to keep the seized territory for long enough and build a strong political base. The contributions of other entities have also been of huge significance in the effort to combat terrorism.

Political parties, civil society, judiciary, scholars, and media gave much-needed backing to the military operations. Their efforts crippled the political base of the insurgency which also helped the military in gaining ground. Counter-insurgency manuals declare political factors as the foremost in this effort and call for a unified approach. Pakistan has witnessed the benefits of engaging with stakeholders and enhancing political involvement.

Pakistan has also been urging the international community to reassess the approach in Afghanistan for the last several years. In April 2021, the Pakistan Foreign Office stated, “we believe there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and a negotiated political solution through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process is important for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan”.

The prolonged presence of the US in Afghanistan turned out to be a failure as political actors were not willing to engage with the occupying force which had its own vested interests. The US presence had implications for the rest of the region in particular Pakistan which suffered the most after Afghanistan. The US did not learn from history and failed like many previous foreign forces in Afghanistan. Going forward, it is important that every country takes out lessons from the last two decades.


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