Pakistan and the Taliban: New Bedfellows

By Zeeshan Salahuddin

Within a matter of days, the Pakistani government will negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. The highly anticipated peace talks are unprecedented in the country's war-torn history. The Taliban will be represented by the chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, as well as religious leaders Maulana Sami-ul-Haq and Professor Ibrahim Khan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called a four-member committee to facilitate the deal on behalf of the state, including his advisor on National Affairs Irfan Siddique, veteran journalist Rahimullah Yousufzai, former ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah Mohmand, and Major Amir Shah, a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official.

When the Taliban came to power in the mid-1990s, the only countries to recognize their writ were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan was the last country to cut diplomatic ties with the Taliban. Perhaps it is no surprise that in recent months, in an attempt to restore peace, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, has been recognized as a legitimate state actor in roundtable negotiations.

It can be argued that the U.S. has already granted this legitimacy to the Taliban, as evidenced by a meeting that nearly took place between American officials and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. The talks, initially set for June 20, 2013, fell apart when Afghanistan expressed its displeasure at the prospect, especially after the Taliban posed as the original Afghan government in exile.

In the same month,  Nawaz Sharif won reelection as prime minister of Pakistan. After a 12-year period marred by incarceration, exile, military dictatorship, and political turmoil, Sharif reiterated his election mandate of seeking a peace deal with the militants. Assigned to broker the deal was Jamiat ul Islami-F (JUI-F), a conservative Islamic political party that enjoys few popular votes, but can mobilize party members in the thousands by shuttling them into urban centers. This move was lauded by the religious right, viewed with cautious skepticism by the moderates, and severely criticized by the (largely) secular left.

Then on November 1, 2013,  a U.S.-led drone strike took out Hakeemullah Mehsud, leader of the TTP. Chaudhary Nisar, the Interior Minister, called the strike an attack on peace, earning the ire and contempt of political contemporaries. His comments were made to prevent the inevitable violent TTP-led backlash. However, the TTP was skeptical of Nisar’s condemnation—questioning the authenticity of a government that accepts money and aid from the United States. Given Pakistan's relationship with the U.S., the Taliban has subsequently targeted security installations, government buildings, military bases, and civilian areas as retribution. Though publicly Pakistan has always adopted an anti-drone policy, the Taliban believes the Pakistani government tacitly approves.

After a relative period of calm, attacks targeting the Pakistani armed forces rose sharply, culminating in devastating attacks on a military convoy in Bannu in which 26 people were killed. The resulting uproar rose to a deafening crescendo. Bear in mind that an estimated 18,667 civilians have died in terrorist violence since 2003, in addition to 5,672 soldiers and law enforcement officials killed over a period of 11 years.

The Interior Ministry vowed to seek revenge against the Taliban. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) bombarded militant hideouts, training facilities, and hideouts in North Waziristan, concentrating around Mir Ali,  and killing dozens in response. The Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, stone-faced and committed to spare no efforts in curbing extremism, echoed his predecessor's remarks—the Pakistani military would not be bullied.

Simultaneously, in February, the Interior Minister presented the country's first National Security Policy in front of parliament. The document was a  refreshingly blunt take on Pakistan's failures to curb terrorism within its own borders. Salient features of the document included building a national narrative, a sort of consensus on how to handle extremist networks, the formation of counter-terrorism departments, the creation of special federal rapid response force, and a policy to bring rogue madrassas under a unified national education system. The document was a bold move in Pakistan's political history. But there is a marked difference between good implementation and thoughtful planning.

Peace talks were progressing with representatives from both the government and TTP. Though no official reason has been given, on March 1, 2014, the TTP announced a ceasefire. The implication is that the TTP agreed to a ceasefire to give the appearance that the peace talks were working, as well as to alleviate the relentless aerial bombardment of their hideouts.

On the same day, two IED explosions killed 11 security officials charged with protecting polio workers in the Jamrod area. Two days later, armed men attacked the district court, leaving another 11 dead. The TTP categorically denied their involvement, claiming that some splinter groups wanted to sabotage the peace talks. A lesser-known faction, Ahrar-ul-Hind, claimed responsibility.

This begs the obvious question: if the TTP cannot control and/or reprimand other groups, what is the point of negotiating with them? The two attacks amply demonstrate that even with an "unconditional ceasefire,” the violence will continue unabated. While this is a valid question is important, it is also a bit naïve.

The TTP is less of an organized armed force, and more of a franchise, with a loose set of operational guidelines that have been adopted in full or in part by other groups with their own agendas. The TTP absolutely cannot guarantee peace, because it is not in control of every faction that operates in Pakistan. TTP's willingness to negotiate with the state already puts them at odds with other, more hard-nosed extremist elements, causing a major fracture in what was once viewed as mostly united front. While negotiations with the TTP alone will not fix or eradicate terrorism from the country, they will clearly mark which groups the state can negotiate with, and which will continue to challenge the writ of the state.

This is where the overarching, comprehensive National Security Policy comes into play. Imagine a man afflicted with cancer. Removing a single tumor will not cure him; all tumors must be excised using all tools at the physician's disposal. Negotiating with the TTP and conducting an operation in North Waziristan will get the ball rolling, and perhaps win a few crucial battles against the menace of militancy in the country. But until extremism is identified in academic curriculums, in madrassas, in hate speech at religious gatherings, until supply lines are choked, and counter-narratives are launched, until deterrents are served and enemy splintering is exploited, the war will not be won.



Zeeshan Salahuddin is a journalist and a development professional, currently working as a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social And Policy Sciences (I-SAPS) in Islamabad.

[Photos courtesy of Nasar Dukki]

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