The deadly suicide bombing inside a mosque in Peshawar’s Police Lines area on January 30 has deepened the realization among Pakistan’s policymaking circles that dealing with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) necessitates a new approach.
The attack, which appears to have been targeted against police personnel praying at the mosque, claimed the lives of over a hundred people, most of them policemen. Over 200 others were injured in the attack, many of them critically.
The attack came two months after the TTP unilaterally withdrew from a ceasefire and ordered its fighters to carry out attacks across Pakistan. Several bloody attacks have taken place in the months since.
Pakistan’s civil-military leadership agree that the old approach of talking to the TTP was perhaps part of the problem. Moreover, the idea of hoping to disarm the group with the help of the Afghan Taliban did not work, partially because the Taliban regime’s relationship with the TTP is stronger and more important to it than its ties with Islamabad.
Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khwaja Asif told parliament on Tuesday that TTP fighters had fought alongside the Afghan Taliban against the United States and its allies. Consequently, the Afghan Taliban “are repaying their debts [to the TTP] and are turning a blind eye to whatever they are doing in Pakistan from across the border.” He also said that it was time Pakistan puts its house in order, suggesting that the country needed to follow a consistent policy with regard to dealing with militants.
It is entirely within the reach of the country’s civil-military leadership to evolve a consensus at home on a new approach to dealing with the TTP domestically.
Amid the many crises Pakistan faces, the current civil-military leadership could sit down with the judiciary and other stakeholders to prioritize problems that require immediate attention and determine which ones can wait.
For instance, some government officials believe that the announced elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province should not be a priority at the moment. They argue that the political sparring that prompted the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to dissolve the provincial assemblies to force early elections has added confusion to the whole situation.
It remains to be seen if former Prime Minister and PTI Chief Imran Khan can be brought on board. A government official told The Diplomat on condition pf anonymity that there is hardly any appetite among politicians of Pakistan’s ruling coalition to talk to Khan as he has only “acted as a spoiler on issues of national significance.”
Meanwhile, an even bigger challenge looms. Pakistan will have to find a way to convince the Afghan Taliban that the TTP’s attacks and violent campaign are not in either country’s interest and that the group’s disarming can pave the way for further deepening of bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In this context, it is noteworthy that the Taliban regime condemned the Peshawar attack, which was carried out by one of the extremist factions of the TTP. In its statement, it described the victims of the attack as “martyrs.” It also expressed its opposition to attacks on places of worship.
Meanwhile, the TTP central command distanced itself from the attack on the Peshawar mosque. It took a position similar to the Afghan Taliban.
There are a couple of significant takeaways from the views expressed by the Afghan Taliban and the TTP in response to the recent attack. One is that their leaders appear to agree that attacks that could draw public ire in the tribal belt against their groups should be avoided. It is evident too that differences seem to have emerged in the TTP’s leadership over the issue of targeting civilians in Pakistan.
At this stage, one cannot be sure whether the TTP faction that claimed responsibility for the attack acted on its own or with the permission of the central command. In the past, the TTP and other militant groups have used such diversions to shift the blame and evade pressure from the Afghan Taliban and others.
Meanwhile, Pakistan will need to step up efforts to push the Taliban regime to deny safe havens to the TTP. Moreover, Pakistan must convince the Afghan Taliban that effective border management is in the group’s interest. If the Taliban regime lacks the capacity to manage the border effectively, Pakistan can extend assistance, given the two have agreed on an intelligence sharing mechanism.
Besides, Islamabad should follow a consistent policy that leads to the disarmament of the TTP. If there is a need for negotiations, these should only be aimed at ensuring the surrender of the group.
Undoubtedly, all of this seems easier said than done, given the distrust that exists between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For instance, Pakistan can hardly afford to disengage with the Afghan Taliban as it looks to import Russian oil and gas, a part of which will travel through Afghanistan before it reaches Pakistan’s borders. Moreover, bilateral transit trade is of such a nature that disengagement will only hurt Pakistan greatly as it grapples with a monumental economic challenge.
If Islamabad focuses on fighting terrorism domestically and works with the Afghan Taliban on tackling the TTP, things can change for the better. However, if the TTP or its splinter groups continue to attack Pakistan, it may be a matter of time before Pakistan decides to take the war against the TTP to Afghanistan. This would bring the risk of a major fallout.