Talking to the Taliban: potential and pitfalls — Dr Mohammad Taqi

TaqiThe TTP has been able to violate every peace deal through the use of brute force that was a direct function of the sanctuary it enjoys in FATA

As we go to press Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif would have become the prime minister of Pakistan for the third time, a first in the country’s history. As he steps into the office, Mr Sharif already has his plate full. He lists the energy crisis as his number one priority and bringing the economy back from the brink as the next, though both are not mutually exclusive. Domestic security including (jihadist) terrorism, the crisis in Balochistan and foreign relations then appear on his list. Talking peace with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is part of Mr Sharif’s domestic security to-do agenda.

Even before the new assemblies were sworn in a debate had been raging whether the new government should talk to the TTP or not. The simple answer to that is: they will have to. The centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the farther-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) of Imran Khan — the two top vote getters countrywide — have consistently maintained that they will negotiate peace with the TTP. In fact, if Hillary Clinton’s spiel was ‘talk-fight-talk’ with the Afghan Taliban, the PML-N and PTI’s mantra has effectively been ‘talk, don’t fight, talk’ with the TTP.

The PML-N is now in power at the federal level and Punjab comfortably and is the largest numerical entity in the Balochistan coalition government. The PTI along with its likeminded coalition partner the Jamaat-e-Islami is at the helm in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. These perennial proponents of dialogue have no excuse now to not start the talks in earnest. It is a democratic obligation, not just a right, of these parties to deliver on the ‘peace through parleys’ that they have been promising their voters on the campaign trail. While the Awami National Party and the Pakistan People’s Party were forced to negotiate with the TTP, the new governments have always wanted to exercise the negotiations option. The PML-N and the PTI may now be the prisoners of the narrative they have weaved over the years. Even if they wanted to fight the jihadist terror now — no indication however that they do — they will have to exhaust the negotiations option first or they will not get the public to buy-in. The right-wing political parties’ will have to act fast. Their honeymoon period with the TTP and other assorted jihadists might be coming to an end with the sporadic TTP attacks, including one that killed Farid Khan, the former extremist-turned-politician from Hangu, who had joined the PTI after being elected to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.

It is very likely that the false narrative that the TTP can be convinced to not use their weapons, if not lay them down, will deconstruct itself as the TTP violates the next peace deal. But the naysayers, who, with a lot of justification, consider such endeavours eminently futile and counterproductive, should perhaps hold their peace for now. Unlike Mr Khan’s skin-deep understanding of the jihadist menace in the region, Mr Sharif’s instincts are right and experience quite vast. It would not take Mr Sharif long to discover that when the security establishment asks the civilians to take charge of the peace process with the TTP, they are effectively being set up for failure. The TTP insurgency has not been running in isolation and remains joined at the hip with the Afghan Taliban, e.g. the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar and, more importantly, the Haqqani terrorist network (HQN). The Quetta Shura and the HQN will most likely remain no-go areas for the new civilian rulers. There is ample evidence suggesting that the TTP maintains not merely ideological but also logistical and organisational bonds to the HQN. And these ties are not just historical but active and current.

Last week, a US drone strike killed the TTP second-in-command Waliur Rehman Mehsud, along with Uzbek jihadists near Miran Shah, North Waziristan Agency (NWA) in an area controlled by the HQN. Waliur Rehman — ostensibly the ‘moderate’ Taliban — was involved in a 2009 suicide bombing of the US base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA personnel and the failed Times Square, New York bombing in 2010. The TTP continues to provide manpower, especially suicide bombers, for the HQN attacks inside Afghanistan. In fact, the suicide bombers training camp in the NWA was run jointly by the HQN’s de facto chief Sirajuddin Haqqani and the TTP’s Qari Hussain, before the latter was killed in a 2010 drone attack. It would be nearly impossible to negotiate a lasting peace with the TTP without eventually confronting the HQN, something the Pakistani security establishment would not do, as it has made abundantly clear through its persistent inaction. However, even if the security establishment’s calculus in Afghanistan plays out to the advantage of the HQN and the ‘wayward’ TTP could be reoriented post-2014 to unleash havoc in Kabul rather than Karachi, it would not be too long before they boomerang back on Pakistan. The security establishment continues to underestimate the ideological potency of the jihadist potion that it has been peddling for decades.

According to Mr Sartaj Aziz, an advisor to Mr Sharif and potentially the next president of Pakistan, after Mullah Omar rebuked the Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal’s demand in 1998 to handover Osama bin Laden, Mr Sharif wanted to ‘review our entire relationship with the Taliban regime’. Mr. Sharif asked him ‘to prepare, in consultation with the DG ISI (General Ziauddin Butt) a comprehensive position paper on future relationship with the Taliban regime’ and present it to the Defence Committee of the Cabinet in two weeks. Mr Aziz writes that the very next morning Major General Parvez Masud, in-charge of the ISI’s Afghan desk, visited his office ‘without any appointment’ and asked him to ‘persuade the prime minister to defer his decision to review Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban regime for some time’.

Chances are that Mr Sharif and his advisors will receive similar messages in his new stint as well. However, if his heart is set on negotiations with the TTP he must take into consideration the bigger picture and perhaps deflect pressure to dissuade him from revisiting Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. The TTP has been able to violate every peace deal through the use of brute force that was a direct function of the sanctuary it enjoys in FATA, especially the NWA courtesy the HQN. Without a thorough review of the happenings in the NWA any negotiations with the TTP are bound to have more pitfalls than the potential to succeed.

The writer can be reached at and he tweets @mazdaki

Courtesy: Daily Times\story_6-6-2013_pg3_2

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