NEW DELHI: The killing of four top commanders of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan has struck a major blow to the terror group and cast doubts over a ceasefire and ongoing peace talks between the extremists and the Islamabad government, a report said.
In the wake of the killings, which occurred on August 7, the TTP leadership has held frantic discussions about how to deal with the loss of some of its top guns, the RFE/RL report quoted observers as saying.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the separate deadly blasts that killed the commanders, experts suggest they could be result of an internal rift over the prospect of a lasting truce with Islamabad, which the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has fought to overthrow since 2007.
At stake is the future of an indefinite truce between the militants and Islamabad, as well as talks aimed at ending the TTP's deadly insurgency.
Continuing the ceasefire that has been in place for about two months could create bad blood among the TTP's leadership, experts say.
But scrapping the truce and peace talks could lead to pressure from the Haqqani network, a powerful Afghan Taliban faction that hosts the TTP in Afghanistan and is believed to have close ties to the Pakistani intelligence services, they say, RFE/RL reported.
The negotiations have been mediated by the Afghan Taliban, which has close ideological and organisational ties with the TTP. The Afghan militant group is also a longtime ally of Islamabad.
The TTP leadership has used Afghanistan as a sanctuary and staging ground for attacks against Islamabad since a major military offensive in 2014 drove the militants across the border.
The details of the killings remain murky.
While the TTP has confirmed the deaths of Abdul Wali (alias Omar Khalid Khorasani), Mufti Hassan Swati, and Hafiz Dawlat Khan Orakzai as they travelled in southeastern Afghanistan, it is unclear whether their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb or a drone strike.
All three were believed to oppose peace talks with Pakistan, RFE/RL reported.
Some have suggested that the three were headed to a meeting with representatives of the Afghan Taliban in the Barmal district of Paktika Province, which borders the Pakistani districts of North and South Waziristan.
"It has yet to be ascertained what really happened, but the area where the three top TTP leaders were reported killed was once the stronghold of the Haqqani network," RFE/RL quoted Afrasiab Khattak, an analyst and former Pakistani senator, as saying.
Another top TTP commander, intelligence chief Abdul Rashid (alias Uqabi Bajauri), was killed just hours earlier by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar Province.
The four killings came just days after A -Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri was assassinated in a US drone strike on his safe house in a posh area of Kabul believed to be under the control of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan Taliban's interior minister and head of the Haqqani network.
Khorasani, who had a $3 million US bounty on his head, was a founding member of the TTP and was considered to be its most important and ruthless commander.
He formed his own militant group, Jamat ul-Ahrar (JuA), in 2013. But he rejoined the TTP after current leader Noor Wali Mehsud took over in 2018.
Khorasani was a harsh critic of the government in Pakistan, and had consistently opposed negotiations between the TTP and Islamabad, RFE/RL reported.
In 2014, Khorasani and the JuA were responsible for the massacre of 23 captured Pakistani soldiers as the TTP held peace talks with Pakistani authorities. Khorasani's JuA also claimed responsibility for a bomb blast in 2016 in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore that killed nearly 70 people, mostly from the Christian minority.
The two other TTP commanders killed alongside Khorasani in Afghanistan, Hassan and Dawlat, were also averse to the peace talks. The two had declared allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group's chief Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi in 2015.
But they returned to the TTP after Khorasani merged the JuA into the fold of the TTP.
A Peshawar-based researcher said the killing of the TTP commanders is more indicative of an internal rift within the group than any outside factors, RFE/RL reported.
There were suspicions among the TTP's leadership, the researcher says, about Hassan and Dawlat's allegiance due to their past links with IS. And in some circles, Hassan had been accused of having ties to the Western-backed Afghan government that was ousted by the Afghan Taliban in August 2021, he adds.
In one big change, a Pakistani military officer who was seen as the architect of the peace process has been transferred from the northwestern city of Peshawar in the wake of the killings.
Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, a former intelligence chief, was removed from his post as corps commander in Peshawar on Monday.
Hameed had recently met the TTP chief in Kabul during which they agreed on the terms of a possible permanent truce.
His transfer has raised questions within the TTP about the future of the talks, sources within the militant group say, RFE/RL reported.