By Zahid Hussain
Predictably, the negotiations between the Pakistan government and militants have collapsed before they could even take off from the ground. The banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has declined to extend the cease-fire, accusing Pakistan’s security forces of violating the truce. The talks started last month on the insistence of a newly installed Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The militant group that has been operating from sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan had agreed to a one month truce. The breakdown of the talks puts the Afghan Taliban regime under pressure to take action against the TTP which has been responsible for killing thousands of Pakistanis in terrorist attacks.
Curiously, the brief truce collapsed as Pakistan observed the seventh anniversary of the most heinous terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history. The carnage at Army School Peshawar in December 2014 left more than 150 students and staff members killed. The attack was claimed by the TTP.
Not surprisingly, the government decision to negotiate with the militant groups caused a huge outrage in the country. Many saw the talks as a virtual surrender to a group that is also on the list of global terrorist networks. With no indication that the TTP was willing to lay down arms and accept the Constitution, many questions were raised about the negotiations going anywhere. The demand for the release of prisoners before talks made it clear that the outfit sought to negotiate from a position of strength. The ambiguity around the terms of negotiations made the talks extremely controversial.
According to senior Pakistani security officials, the militants also demanded that the army should be withdrawn from the former tribal regions and the semi-autonomous status of the area be restored. It virtually meant handing over the territory to the group from where it was driven out. More than five thousand soldiers and officers were killed in operations that continued for six years. Millions of people were also displaced from their homes.
The militant outfit disintegrated into several groups after being driven out of their strongholds. Some 5,000 militants took refuge in Afghanistan. Most of them settled in the eastern Afghan provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar with the support of the Afghan Taliban. Last year the TTP factions got reunited and stepped up their cross-border attacks in North and South Waziristan. The two regions that have now integrated to the mainland have remained unsettled. Scores of Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the attacks over the past year.
The return of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan seemed to have emboldened the TTP. It was clear that the Afghan Taliban regime pushed both sides to talk. The interim Afghan foreign minister during his visit to Pakistan last month acknowledged that his government was facilitating the talks. According to media reports, both sides had agreed to initiate “formal talks” and had finalized five names of negotiators each.
However, the government had drawn certain redlines which were not open to negotiations. That included accepting Pakistan’s constitution and not to establish militant safe havens inside the former tribal areas. But the TTP never agreed to a complete surrender.
A TTP spokesperson ruled out the possibility of extending the truce, saying the government had violated some parts of the deal and continued to raid their hideouts in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The TTP’s decision not to extend the cease-fire also put the Afghan Talban administration in a tight spot.
In a video message last week, TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud claimed the group was a branch of the Taliban Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). Although a Taliban spokesman has rejected the claim, the close association between the two is very obvious. Afghan Taliban leaders have been pressing the Pakistan government to seriously consider TTP’s demands. It’s almost telling Pakistan that it should surrender to a terrorist group.
The failed talks seem to follow the pattern of past peace negotiations with the militant group with each peace deal further empowering the militant outfit. Apparently, the TTP was re-organizing itself and regaining its space in the former tribal districts. There are already some reports of the revival of TTP activities in parts of the area.
More worrisome is that the new Afghan Taliban regime is still protecting the TTP despite the group continuing to launch cross border attacks. The Afghan regime has repeatedly assured Pakistan and the international community that it will not allow its country’s soil to be used for terrorist action against any state. Pakistan’s military spokesman said that there was no reason to doubt the assurances held out by the Taliban regime. Yet, there is no indication that Taliban authorities will be willing to take action against TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan. A Taliban spokesman has reportedly advised the Pakistan government to make peace with the militants. This is certainly not very assuring for Pakistan.
(Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year. Twitter: @hidhussain)