Pakistan is reportedly set to send a 13-member delegation of Islamic clerics to continue negotiations with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with the talks being brokered by the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. The delegation is being sent following the return of the 50-member tribal jirga, which had gone to Afghanistan for talks, after the Pakistani Taliban announced their latest “indefinite” ceasefire.
The TTP has orchestrated some of the deadliest terror attacks in Pakistan over the past decade and a half, with over 80,000 Pakistanis killed in jihadist raids. The TTP’s goriest attack on a Peshawar school in 2014 sparked the government to craft the National Action Plan, in which the state vowed to never compromise with terror outfits.
Today, it is back at the table with the nation’s foremost killers.
Even while vowing never to bow down to terror groups like the Pakistani Taliban, the state has been involved in a decades-old push to establish the Afghan Taliban in Kabul, which came to pass in August last year. However, soon enough, as the Pakistani establishment basked in its success in Afghanistan, there were signs that the Afghan Taliban had pulled a reversal on the military rulers in Rawalpindi. Now Afghanistan’s new rulers were aspiring to use Pakistan’s volatile regions for Kabul’s expansionist ambitions instead of the other way around.
There was a precipitous hike in the TTP’s maneuvers both immediately before and after the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, with 282 attacks claimed by the group in 2021. Despite announcing a ceasefire in November, which was soon overturned, the TTP has continued its aggression in 2022, killing almost 100 Pakistani soldiers in the first three months of the year. Pakistani forces responded in April, as air force jets bombarded reported TTP hideouts in Afghanistan’s Khost and Kunar provinces.
The message given by the Pakistani military in April was that it was ostensibly willing to alienate Afghan Taliban allies, and openly attack the territory of a sovereign state, if it meant weakening the TTP. A little over a month later, it is the jihadist group that appears to have the upper hand as the military arbitrarily pushes negotiations belatedly owned by the newly installed Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)-led setup.
A senior military official told The Diplomat that after a crisis-laden couple of months, the negotiations would allow the Pakistan Army to regroup and refocus its attention toward bringing peace along the Af-Pak border.
“There are raging economic and political crises in the country, which naturally impact the army as well. We have also invested a lot of energy in the Afghan Taliban and have to keep them on board as well. [The army] won’t allow TTP to expand itself, but it is biding its time for the decisive crackdown,” claimed the military officer.
However, sources within the government suggest that more than a military strategy, a political battle has resumed in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
“The Taliban want to regain political control over parts of [former] FATA. They want to impose Islamic Shariah in the area, and we are back to our decades old pleas reminding them that Pakistan already is an Islamic country with Islamic laws,” a government official told The Diplomat.
Clearly, despite the imposition of Islamic Shariah in the Pakistan Penal Code, the Taliban continue to long to take it up a few notches, as the TTP aspires to recreate its de facto rule over Swat from over a decade ago.
In addition to imposition of Islamic Shariah across former FATA, the TTP has conveyed to the Pakistani state via the jirga negotiations that it wants the mainstreamed tribal areas to be returned to their original status, delinking the region from the constitution to return the lawlessness that creates volatility conducive to TTP’s rise. The Pakistani Taliban have also asked the state to withdraw armed forces from former FATA and release captured TTP jihadists. Two top TTP leaders, Muslim Khan and Mehmood Khan, were handed over last month to the Afghan Taliban, who released around 2,300 TTP fighters from Afghanistan prisons immediately after coming to power.
If it needed reiterating, the Afghan Taliban view the TTP not only as their ideological brethren, but also a natural strategic ally that would facilitate the expansion of the Islamic Emirate to at least the Pashtun-majority parts of Pakistan, in which all Afghanistan regimes have maintained a stake, since the creation of Pakistan.
With the mainstreaming of FATA through its incorporation into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province still limited to paperwork, the area remains central to the powerplays between state and extra-state actors, resulting in surrendered rights, lost lives, and the abandoning of any semblance of peace.
“Other than the Taliban and [Pakistan] army, there is another stakeholder – the people. The locals want civil supremacy and permanent peace no matter what,” Lateef Wazir, the coordinator of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) in Jani Khel town, told The Diplomat.
Wazir maintains that in times of both war and ceasefire, the violence in his area has continued relentlessly.
“While negotiations have been ongoing, there have been continuous targeted killings, blasts, violence from both sides, the army and the Taliban. Over the past couple of months in Jani Khel alone, an FC [Frontier Corps] personnel was murdered, four people were killed in a gun attack, and a woman was targeted and killed at her home,” he said.
“These incidents aren’t reported in the [Pakistani] mainstream media, because the army has been here for the past 13 years. Such incidents, after years of operations, countless check-posts, continuous search operations, pose question marks over the military’s presence,” he added.
The PTM leader insists that the uncertainty over the success of any negotiations notwithstanding, any form of agreement would be detrimental to the future of the locals.
“Peace might be temporary, for a month or two or a few more. But more importantly, how can we accept a state within a state?” Wazir asked.
Many locals from the tribal areas insist that, despite the TTP rearing its head intermittently to signal its return to former FATA, the Pakistani Taliban never actually left the area.
“The TTP sleeper cells were always present in ex-FATA. Pakistan’s policy and operations somehow were always inadequate or lacking in eliminating these militant outfits,” tribal activist and blogger Mona Aurangzeb told The Diplomat. “You cannot have good Taliban in Afghanistan and bad ones in Pakistan. Ideologically they are the same outfits. They all are acceptable to the Pakistan government under different adjustments.”
She added that the government continues to give mixed signals over the tribal areas, with the military running a vicious circle of military operations and expensive warfare.
“Ex-FATA, in the recent budget, like previously, has been promised decent allocation. However, with no security, [turbulent] law and order situation and instability, I don’t know how the TTP talks and development policy go hand in hand. Talks with them and then kitty-draining military operations against the bad Taliban, and then legitimatizing them with talk is the biggest contradiction,” Aurangzeb added.
Pakistan’s negotiations with terror historically have always been designed to concentrate the jihadist bloodshed in certain segments, predominantly the Af-Pak border area spanning across Balochistan and former FATA. The ongoing negotiations too, regardless of their outcome, are designed to reach an agreement over which people the TTP is free to subjugate, persecute, and massacre.
“The state is bowing doing too much, trying to pacify them, instead of being firm. The type of agenda and ambitions that they have there is nothing that Pakistan can compromise. They stand against the constitution. They need to be stifled. If they gain more power, it can be even more damaging,” Lt.-Gen. Talat Masood, former secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense Production, told The Diplomat.
“The Afghan Taliban have given them so much space. Pakistan was hoping with the Taliban taking over, Afghanistan would be friendly with Pakistan and look after Pakistan’s interests; it is the other way around. They know that we cannot afford to annoy them, but they too cannot afford to annoy Pakistan so they are playing the middle game,” he added.
“The previous Afghan regime would be very happy that Pakistan is paying the price for supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.”