KABUL / JALALABAD — During 2020, the Pakistani government and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has, since its inception in December 2007, been openly fighting the Pakistani government, conducted secret peace negotiations, militant sources exclusively confirmed to The Diplomat. While these negotiations went into much detail, the talks eventually collapsed in late 2020 or early 2021 with no indication that they might resume. To the contrary, a spike of attacks claimed by the TTP indicates that they are back on the war path, which has consequences for Pakistan’s tribal areas and beyond.
Negotiations Between the TTP and the Pakistani Government
That the TTP and the Pakistani government were negotiating peace was confirmed by two active TTP members residing in eastern Afghanistan, as well as a former insurgent who is still well-connected amongst TTP members.
The TTP members were reluctant to share details and TTP spokesman Mohammad Khorasani could not be reached despite repeated attempts. But the former insurgent, who is in regular contact with TTP members, outlined what was discussed during negotiations under the condition of anonymity. “The negotiations took place during 2020 and were facilitated by the Haqqani Network,” the source asserted. The Haqqani Network, a militant organization that emerged in the borderlands of southeastern Afghanistan during the Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, has become an integral part of the Afghan Taliban and is said to have close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
That the Haqqani Network has facilitated talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government was also briefly mentioned in an op-ed by Ehsanullah Ehsan, a former TTP spokesman, that was published on November 28, 2020. While Ehsan has a checkered history and is not necessarily a reliable source, Abdul Sayed, an analyst closely following the TTP, in early February 2021 also corroborated that there have been rumors about negotiations between the TTP and the Pakistani government mediated by the Haqqani Network.
The former insurgent further sent The Diplomat a list of over 10 items that had reportedly been part of negotiations. Among the most important points was that TTP members shall cease all their attacks in Pakistan. In return, the Pakistani government would have released all imprisoned TTP members. Talks apparently proceeded to the point that TTP field commanders were instructed to compile lists of their detained brothers-in-arms. In addition and in case of a successful accord, the Pakistani Army would have withdrawn from several former Federally Administered Tribal Agencies, whereas the TTP would have pledged to guard the border in such areas.
According to the source, the TTP would also have been allowed to implement a Shariah-based system in tribal agencies vacated by the Pakistani Army, although the extent of this remained unclear. It should be kept in mind that, back in February 2009, the Pakistani government had likewise agreed to allow the implementation of Shariah law in the Swat valley and Malakand division, but this deal more or less fell apart when violence erupted again in these and surrounding areas a little later.
Other points that were, according to the source, meant to be part of a new, comprehensive agreement concerned financial compensation for killed and wounded TTP members, for certain heavy weapons that the TTP would have had to hand over to the Pakistani government, as well as for expenses for final negotiations. The Pakistani state reportedly also insisted that the TTP would have to conduct final negotiations as a united front comprising all its splinter groups.
The latter point is interesting as several TTP splinter groups – most notably Jamaat ul-Ahrar and Hezb ul-Ahrar – have indeed reunited with the TTP main group since summer 2020. It remains unclear though what role, if any, the secret negotiations may have played in this reunification. Some reports note that bringing splinter groups back into the fold of the main TTP has been a personal focus of Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the man who became the main TTP leader after his divisive predecessor Mullah Fazlullah was killed in a U.S. drone strike in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar in June 2018.
Furthermore, the former insurgent, who still follows TTP developments closely through his numerous friends in the movement, asserted that yet another party also played a role in the recent TTP merger. “Al-Qaida members were present in the jirgas [traditional meetings] that led to the re-unification. Given the animosity between the TTP main group and TTP splinter groups such jirgas would not have been possible without the mediation by al-Qaida members,” the source said. A United Nations report dated February 3, 2021 corroborated this, stating that the reunification of TPP splinter groups “was moderated by al-Qaida.”
Al-Qaida’s exact reasons for this move could not be determined. However, Asfandyar Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, told The Diplomat that “the TTP’s leadership has been a powerful ally of al-Qaida in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, amongst others hosting top al-Qaida figures,” which means that al-Qaida has a vested interest in a strong TTP. In view of all this, an official TTP communiqué asserting that no “global [jihadi] organization” played a role in the merger sounds hollow.
In any event, by mid-December 2020 everything still looked good, with the former insurgent at that time having told The Diplomat that the official announcement of the negotiations between the TTP and the Pakistani government would be imminent. “One TTP member, whom I know and who lives in eastern Afghanistan, had already gifted an opened, but still half-full bag of flour to his Afghan neighbor as he was certain that he would return to Pakistan soon,” the source remembered.
Collapse of Talks
But only a little later, either in late December 2020 or in early January 2021 negotiations broke down. This was confirmed to The Diplomat by an active TTP member, who only said that the TTP rejected certain conditions without elaborating. The former insurgent stated, though, that the conditions that were unacceptable to the TTP would have amounted to the TTP becoming a proxy force of the Pakistani government. This echoes warnings voiced by former TTP spokesman Ehsan in the op-ed cited above. However, this should be taken with utmost caution Ehsan’s text is undoubtedly biased and the former insurgent who spoke to The Diplomat is also prejudiced against the Pakistani government.
Another cause for the collapse of the negotiations might have been dissent within the TTP. While not explicitly mentioning this as a reason for the failure of talks, the former insurgent told The Diplomat that “some, in particular younger TTP members, were opposed to negotiations as they thought that Pakistan would deceive the TTP and saw the proposed settlement as an undue capitulation to the Pakistani government.” Whether or not internal dissent was a significant reason for the collapse of the negotiations between the TTP and the Pakistani government, the reported reaction of some more radical TTP elements shows that chances to successfully negotiate with fundamentalist jihadist groups might have narrow limitations.
It is also possible that the distrust between the TTP and the Pakistani government might have simply been too much to overcome. “There have been occasional contacts between the Pakistani government and certain TTP factions in the recent past, but they have never made any headway due to distrust between the involved parties,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran Pakistani journalist and analyst, said, referring to other examples.
The Pakistani Ministries of Foreign and Interior Affairs, as well as the Inter Services Public Relations, the Pakistani military’s media office, did not reply to a request for comments on the mentioned talks and their collapse.
Spike in Violence and Other Potential Consequences
The failure of these secret negotiations likely played a role in a spike in TTP claimed violence in early 2021. One example of the recent increase in violence was that the TTP claimed to have killed and injured over 57 Pakistani security forces between February 12 and 19 alone, in separate incidents that took mostly part in South and North Waziristan. Yusufzai also confirmed a general increase in TTP attacks in early 2021, explaining that this was probably caused by an array of reasons, including the recent reunification of TTP splinter groups with the main movement.
While this obviously has the potential to once again cause a deterioration of the security situation in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a reinvigorated and attacking TTP might also be bad news beyond that. The country that is most likely to be affected by a resurgent TTP is neighboring Afghanistan.
According to a report of the United Nations from May 2020 the TTP “is thought to have approximately 500 fighters in Kunar and about 180 in Nangarhar,” both provinces in eastern Afghanistan. The same report also notes that the “total number of Pakistani nationals fighting with terrorist groups in Afghanistan may be as high as 6,000 to 6,500,” which apparently also includes Pakistani fighters that do not belong to the TTP. While these numbers could not be independently verified, this author has himself met TTP members in Nangarhar. People who are in contact with TTP members and have visited the respective places have also told The Diplomat about significant TTP presences in parts of Kunar province, namely in areas of the districts of Shultan and Ghaziabad. In addition, sources also indicate a relevant TTP presence in Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Paktika.
That said, TTP members have in the past only seldom staged attacks inside Afghanistan and their relationship with the Afghan Taliban, at least in eastern Afghanistan, has oscillated between cooperation and outright hostility, including killings. However, this does not mean that it has to stay this way. Indeed, a bloody ambush on a convoy of the Khost Protection Force, a local militia loyal to the Afghan government and reportedly backed by the United States, that took place on March 9 in an area of the southeastern Afghan province of Khost near the disputed border with Pakistan was reportedly conducted by a group of Afghan Taliban and TTP members. While it is too early to assess whether this attack has been an exception or whether it is a sign for more to come, it is a concerning sign.
Whether or to what extent a reinvigorated TTP might also be a threat beyond the immediate region is even harder to determine. On one hand, on September 1, 2010, the United States designated the TTP as a foreign terrorist organization. This designation, which is still in place, was caused due to reported TTP involvement in attacks against U.S. targets, including a failed attempt to bomb Times Square in New York on May 1, 2010. However, in the recent past, the TTP has attempted to style itself as a regionally or even nationally focused movement and it seems, at least at the moment, unlikely that the TTP would aim to attack targets outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. On the other hand, the above-cited findings indicate that the TTP remains allied with al-Qaida – which, in turn, might mean that a more assertive TTP could give al-Qaida more breathing space in the Pakistani tribal areas. Al-Qaida could then use this foothold to attempt to facilitate internationally-oriented attacks.
The collapsed negotiations between the TTP and the Pakistani government seem to make at least one thing clear: Pakistan’s tribal areas won’t come to rest any time soon.