By Zahid Hussain
SOME factions of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban movement based in Afghanistan have returned to peace talks raising hopes of a cessation of hostilities in Pakistan’s troubled former tribal regions. The so-called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) agreed to extend the ceasefire to May 30 following a meeting with senior Pakistani security officials in Kabul last week.
But the success of talks will depend on whether the militant group is willing to lay down arms. The previous peace talks had failed to make any headway because of the group’s intransigence. There are also questions about whether other more hardliner factions would agree to a truce. They continue to attack Pakistani security forces in North and South Waziristan districts.
There has been significant escalation in cross-border attacks on Pakistani security forces following the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan last August. Clearly, the development in Afghanistan has emboldened the TTP. Once split into several factions, the militants in Afghanistan, said to number around 5,000 to 6,000, are reuniting and appear to be better equipped.
The TTP leadership took refuge in Afghanistan after fleeing the military operations in Pakistan’s former tribal areas — apparently with the support of the Afghan Taliban. Many TTP militants, who were released from Afghan jails with the return of the Afghan Taliban after the American exit, are said to be actively involved in launching terror attacks in Pakistan.
Islamabad had begun peace talks with the outlawed TTP network on the insistence of the Afghan Taliban regime late last year, something that had led to massive public outrage within Pakistan. This was hardly surprising, as the move was seen as ceding to the TTP, which is recognized globally as a terrorist group.
Had the militants’ demands — that the army exit former FATA and the semi-autonomous status of the area be restored — been met, it would have meant handing over territory to the terrorists in an area where the latter suffered many losses and had to flee during military operations. A tenuous ceasefire was called off by the TTP, that stepped up its attacks on Pakistani security forces after refusing to lay down arms.
Tensions heightened after Pakistan conducted aerial strikes on the militant sanctuaries across the border some weeks ago. Cross-border operations to take out TTP leaders based in Afghanistan have reportedly been undertaken before, when some months ago, a couple of TTP leaders died in a strike on a militant sanctuary in Kunar province, a region often used by the terrorists to conduct their cross-border attacks.
The latest round of talks is being facilitated by the Afghan Taliban government. The development came after Lt. General Faiz Hameed, the former intelligence chief, who is currently heading the important Peshawar corps of the army, held direct talks with some senior TTP leaders in Kabul in the second week of May.
The talks were reportedly facilitated by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan interior minister. The Haqqani network has close links with the TTP’s Mehsud and Malakand factions. According to some media reports, the tribal Jirgas from former Waziristan have also helped the resumption of the peace process.
There has not been any formal statement from the Pakistani civil and military officials on the contour of the talks. But the Afghan Taliban government and the TTP announced that the talks are moving forward. The militant group has named a committee for the talks.
According to some reports the TTP factions involved in the negotiations have put forth a series of demands in exchange for a ceasefire. The demands include the release of their commanders, including the mid-stage commanders facing life terms and death sentences, financial support to militants repatriated from Afghanistan, and a general amnesty for the families of the TTP fighters. The militants also demanded an end to military operations in North and South Waziristan tribal districts.
Pakistan has reportedly released TTP senior commanders Muhammad Khan and Muslim Khan, but they have not been allowed to leave the country. The move to release the hardcore terrorists involved in the killing of thousands of Pakistanis has provoked strong reaction in the country. There is also a strong apprehension that any deal with the militants on their terms could worsen the country’s security situation.
More importantly, the militant group led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur has not agreed to a ceasefire and continued to attack Pakistan forces while the peace talks are on. The majority of the recent attacks in North Waziristan are said to have been carried out by this group. It remains to be seen whether the TTP is sincere in peace this time or if this will be yet another exercise in futility. With no sign of flexibility however, there is little hope of the talks producing any result.(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)