THE old committee is dead; a new one, stuffed with bureaucrats and one holdover from the previous committee, is born — and no one appears sure what any of it means for the prospects of a deal with the TTP.
The questions abound. To begin with, does the formation of a new government negotiating committee suggest the previous one had failed? Rahimullah Yusufzai, a member of the now-lapsed committee, believes that having chalked up three successes, the committee he had been a part of had run its course:
“One, we facilitated the establishment of contacts with the TTP. Two, they accepted that the talks must take place under the constitution. Maulana Abdul Aziz had opposed that position and he was side-lined after one meeting with the consent of the TTP shura. Three, the TTP agreed to a ceasefire.”
Privately, committee members past and present and individuals close to the voluble committee members tell a different story.
According to an analyst close to several of the seven government-appointed committee members, the original committee was wracked by tensions and disagreements between its members, particularly Maj Amir and Irfan Siddiqui.
But a committee member who declined to be named suggested that the more pertinent reason for wrapping up the old committee was the army leadership’s reluctance to engage with it — stalling any further progress.
“The committee requested a meeting with the army chief and the ISI chief. They never responded,” the member said. “Perhaps the public profile of some of the members made the army uneasy talking about sharing sensitive information with it.” Why though was the army’s reluctance to engage the previous committee so problematic? “Because so much of what has to be decided is in their [the army’s] hands,” a member explained.“ Dr Usman of the GHQ attack, can he be released? Will there be an exchange of prisoners or will they simply be released? Do they release or kill the prisoners they have?”
The committee member continued: “What about the future role and presence of the army in Fata. Withdrawal is out of the question, but relocation is possible. What about foreign militants? Cross-border militancy? Compensation and local administration after a deal? So much is in the army’s hands.”
So, is the new committee better placed to address those issues, even if the army has declined to nominate a representative to the committee? The one holdover from the previous committee, Rustam Shah Mohmand, is surprisingly and emphatically dismissive of the rejigging. “There was no need for a new committee. It’s a needless exercise,” Mohmand said.
Mohmand’s unhappiness, an individual close to other members of the new committee claimed, is linked to the appointment of Habibullah Khan Khattak as the leader of the new committee. While Khattak, a federal secretary, is technically senior to Rustam Shah in the bureaucratic pecking order, he is younger than the retired Rustam Shah.
After friction between members and over leadership had disrupted the workings of the last committee, the omens for less friction in the new committee are already poor.
But why, as has already been much debated, nominate a committee of just bureaucrats to begin with?
The new committee appears even less empowered than the previous, already weak committee given that bureaucrats cannot and will not challenge their political masters and are well schooled in deferring to army interests.
An official familiar with the nomination process speaking on the condition of anonymity explained the choice in this way:
“The government tried but failed to get the army to nominate an army representative to the new committee. After that, the politicians had to be thinking, what if talks fail? The PML-N, PTI or JI won’t want to get the flak for that. So you end up with bureaucrats.”
When asked why he agreed to be a part of a new committee whose chances of success he is pessimistic about, Rustam Shah replied with a rueful laugh. “You know, I don’t know.”
He continued: “The more serious problem is, your interlocutors, the people you are engaging with, lose their faith in you if this week it’s one committee and another week another. They may decide, what’s the point to engaging with these people at all?”
But another individual close to several of Mohmand’s colleagues in the new committee preferred to focus on the upside: “There’s a bit of an opening. Few saw the TTP ceasefire coming. A deal with the Afghan-based Pakistani Taliban may be difficult, but, if the government plays its cards right, maybe the Mehsuds in Waziristan will agree?”