By Zahid Hussain
Predictably, peace talks with the outlawed Pakistani Taliban (TTP) have stalled with the militants operating from across the border in Afghanistan refusing to back down from their hardline position. It’s not only that the group has refused to lay down arms, but it is also seeking to re-establish control over Pakistan’s former tribal regions from where the insurgents were driven out by military operations in 2014.
In a statement on social media, Noor Wali Mehsud who is leading the TTP negotiating team said that the group would not back down from its demand for the reversal of the merger of erstwhile FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. “We cannot back down from our primary demand,” he was reported as saying.
Negotiations between the government of Pakistan and TTP were resumed in May in Kabul under the auspices of the Afghan Taliban’s government after the militant outfit agreed to an indefinite ceasefire. The ice was broken after a visit to Kabul of Lt. General Faiz Hameed, a former ISI chief who is now commanding Peshawar corps. The earlier round of talks had collapsed early this year after the TTP refused to extend the ceasefire.
Despite the announcement of an indefinite ceasefire, the hostilities never ceased as some of the militant factions refused to participate in the talks. Among them was the group led by Gul Bahadur, one of the most lethal of the insurgent factions. The group was driven out of North Waziristan by Pakistani forces in 2014. Bahadur, who has very close links with Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban, has taken sanctuary in Afghanistan since.
While the talks were on, the attacks on security forces in North and South Waziristan continued, leaving several Pakistani soldiers killed. Security forces also kept conducting search and strike operations against militants in the region.
In fact, the talks were doomed from the very outset as insurgent leaders wanted peace on their own terms. The demands presented by them virtually called the Pakistani state to surrender and hand over control of the former tribal areas to the militants. What has emboldened the insurgents was the government’s decision to release several senior TTP leaders who were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis in terrorist attacks. According to a media report, the group wanted the release of several hundred militants before the start of negotiations.
Apparently taking advantage of Pakistan’s appeasement policy, the insurgents kept raising their terms for truce. While ruling out the dissolution of the TTP, Mehsud accused the Pakistani security official involved in the talks of being “non-serious.” He asserted that a “demand which affects the credibility of the movement will be unacceptable.” It makes very clear that the insurgents have never been serious about the peace and just use the talks to regain their lost space.
The Pakistan government ruled out the reversal of the FATA merger with KP which was done through a constitutional amendment in 2018. Meanwhile, the TTP wants the enforcement of its own retrogressive version of Shariah rule in the former tribal areas. That would also mean the state reversing its reforms measure that it has taken to bring the region into the national mainstream. Such an experiment in the past has allowed the extremists to expand their influence and led to the rise of militancy.
In the past, the TTP benefited from the weak response of the security establishment. A series of peace deals made the state virtually surrender its writ. Each peace deal further empowered the militant outfit. The latest talks are likely to be used by the TTP to reorganize itself and regain its space in the tribal districts. There are already some reports of the revival of TTP activities in parts of the area. The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan seems to have further emboldened the proscribed network.
It was military operations that finally broke the back of the TTP and pushed the militants into Afghanistan. The group disintegrated into several factions, some joining Daesh’s Khorasan chapter. Many others were provided sanctuaries by various Afghan Taliban groups. It was after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan that backchannel contacts between Pakistani security agencies and the TTP were established. The talks were facilitated by the Haqqani Network that has long maintained close ties with the Pakistani militant group.
Negotiations make sense only after the militants agree to a complete surrender of arms. But there is no such indication. Most troubling however, is the absence of a clear strategy on the part of the state on how to deal with terrorist groups. There has not been any effort to develop a national consensus on such critical national security issues.
(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)