After a short hiatus, death and destruction knocked on Peshawar’s doors early March when more than 65 people were killed and over 200 wounded in an attack on a Shiite Mosque in the heart of the city.
It is the first major suicide bombing carried out on Pakistani soil after nearly half a decade of peace, thereby signaling that, in the midst of global turmoil, Pakistan too has ventured into what appears to be a second round of the war on terror.
The March 4 attack was claimed by the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP), “one of the major beneficiaries of the derailed peace talks between the Pakistani state and the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) conglomerate,” an intelligence official privy to the developments told The Diplomat.
It was in an interview with the TRT World that Prime Minister Imran Khan first mentioned peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban and its affiliates, where he said the TTP may be allowed to “live like ordinary citizens” if they surrender and reconcile with the state.
Although the TTP, under its charismatic leader Noor Wali Mehsud, rejected Imran’s amnesty offer, the government confirmed entering into a one-month-long ceasefire with the militant group and initiating peace talks being facilitated by the Afghan Taliban. TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani also confirmed the temporary truce.
The Pakistani Taliban’s premise for jihad had stemmed from the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan. It aimed to help the Afghan Taliban regain their territory and viewed the Pakistani military as an enemy that had sided with the Americans.
Now, with the foreign forces out of Afghanistan, the militant outfit has put forward a similar argument against the Pakistani state, accusing it of “occupying” their land in the tribal districts. It demanded the government undo all reforms aimed to improve quality of life and extension of constitutional and civil rights to the tribal districts – a near impossible feat.
When the 30-day truce period ended on December 9, the TTP decided not to extend the ceasefire after accusing the government of failing to honor promises made and for conducting raids, killing and detaining TTP militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
In February, talks officially resumed. The intelligence official told The Diplomat the government has released at least 100 militants so far except two men who are on death row – and the TTP is adamant on ending their imprisonment.
In such a scenario, only a presidential pardon would enable the terrorists’ release.
Despite hinting at the possibility of amnesty for members of the TTP last September, President Arif Alvi hasn’t signed off on the presidential pardon yet.
The incumbent government is already embroiled in a political crisis with a failing economy and an opposition threatening its existence amid speculations that Khan has lost the support of the military establishment.
The country has also witnessed an uptick in violence in the past few months, whether it’s Baloch rebels carrying out sophisticated attacks or the ISKP increasing the frequency and intensity of their terror activities. The TTP also continues to carry out targeted attacks in mostly the northern regions.
Defense analysts explain the simultaneous existence of fighting and peace talks as a war strategy. It was seen in Afghanistan too during the Doha talks between the U.S. and Afghan Taliban. In Pakistan, however, the continued violence makes it difficult to sway public opinion towards a presidential pardon.
Amid all these uncertainties, the unpopular decision to pardon terrorists would mean political suicide for Khan. In his struggle to save his office, he has pushed the peace talks to the back burner for the time being.
The derailed peace process has heightened the confidence of the ISKP leadership – which, although hasn’t officially commented on the peace talks yet, has been critical of it in unofficial chatter on Telegram. The ISKP appears optimistic that the TTP, which is being pushed out of Afghanistan by the new administration and lacks breathing space in Pakistan, would see its members defect to the Islamic State and increase their dominance in the region.