The Pakistani Taliban are heading to Syria. At least that's what a number of unnamed and lesser-known Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders told various Western news outlets this week. But claims that the TTP are involved meaningfully in the jihad against the Bashar al-Assad regime are most likely overblown. They also obscure an even more dangerous reality: The TTP and its allies in Pakistan are gearing up for a long war at home, and Pakistan's civil and military leadership have no coherent strategy to prepare for it.
There are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the reports of TTP participation in the Syrian war. First, the TTP's chief spokesperson, Shahidullah Shahid, hasn't commented on the matter, though it is common practice for the TTP to speak on the record through its spokesperson on most topics. Second, TTP commanders can't seem to agree on how many fighters are going to Syria and on what basis.
For example, one unnamed TTP commander told the BBC that 12 TTP-affiliated "experts" have made their way to Syria, while another told Reuters that "hundreds" of fighters have relocated there from Pakistan in recent months. There is also some disagreement about how TTP fighters are being received by the Syrian rebels. Mohammed Amin, described by the BBC as the TTP's coordinator for Syria, said that Syrian jihadists have told his group that "there's already enough manpower" in Syria and additional foreign personnel are unnecessary. But another unnamed commander told Pakistan's DAWN newspaper that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State in Iraq, an Iraqi militant group now involved in the Syrian war, specifically requested the TTP's support. This would indeed be remarkable, given that al-Baghdadi has been dead for three years.
The truth is more likely consistent with information attributed to a third Pakistani militant, who told AFP that fighters from Pakistan -- mainly foreigners from Arab countries and Uzbekistan, and based in the tribal areas -- have been heading to Syria on a relatively informal basis.
The war in Syria is indeed a compelling destination for many Arabs living in the Pakistani tribal regions. These areas have become less hospitable due to a combination of U.S. drone strikes and Pakistani military operations. For Pakistani jihadists with the TTP and its partner organization, the anti-Shiite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the sectarian aspect of the Syrian war resonates. As the LeJ has stepped up its campaign of killing Shiites in Pakistan, its propaganda is increasingly replete with angry diatribes against the Syrian regime and its supporters in Tehran.
The biggest reason why Syria might draw in some jihadists from Pakistan, however, has to do with how the conflict fits into the eschatological narrative of many militants. Al Qaeda Central and its partners in Pakistan, including the TTP, constantly refer to a set of hadith, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, that speak of an end-times battle in the Levant led by the Messiah and aided by armed forces from an area called Khurasan. These jihadists define the Khurasan region as encompassing Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan. And their noms de guerre, geographical references, and physical movements all suggest they believe -- or want others to believe -- that they are taking part in this prophesied war.
But for all the appeal of the Syrian war, the TTP's focus has been and will continue to be on Pakistan. Over the course of this year, in anticipation of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the group has been preparing a new narrative for a long war in Pakistan -- a war that is not justified by Islamabad's support for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, a primary rallying call for Pakistan's insurgents to date.
The TTP has been reframing its war against the Pakistani state as Ghazwa-e Hind, or the Battle of India. Like al Qaeda's use of hadith that mention Khurasan, the TTP has deployed a set of prophetic traditions that speak of a Muslim conquest of India, a region the TTP defines as virtually all of South Asia, including most of Pakistan. One TTP video series titled Ghazwa-e Hind, for example, features rising preacher Abu Zar al-Burmi calling on Muslims to migrate to Pakistan to defeat its "infidel" rulers and establish true Islamic rule.