DAYS after surrendering to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, the government has announced a month-long ceasefire with another banned terrorist outfit. We are told that there has been substantive development in the ongoing negotiations with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), brokered by the Afghan Taliban. But we still don’t know on what terms the so-called peace is being negotiated with a terrorist group that had declared war on the Pakistani state and had killed thousands of people.
According to a media report, the group wants the release of several hundred militants, many of whom were involved in terrorist attacks, before the start of negotiations. That would contradict the government’s claim of having made significant progress in the talks. The information minister says that the negotiations are being held under a constitutional framework. But there is no clear answer to the question of how the state can talk peace with a group, which is banned as a terrorist outfit and which has not surrendered.
There was no cessation in hostilities while Pakistani security officials engaged in talks. Just days before the ceasefire announcement, an ambush in North Waziristan claimed the lives of four soldiers. Scores of soldiers have lost their lives in renewed terrorist attacks over the last few months in former Fata. Such an escalation in violence raises questions about a tentative truce delivering peace.
It appears that it is the state that has virtually surrendered to a group that is also on the list of global terrorist networks. There is no indication yet that the TTP is willing to lay down its arms and accept the Constitution. The demand for the release of prisoners before talks would make it clear that the outfit seeks to negotiate from a position of strength.
The ambiguity around the terms of negotiations has made the talks extremely controversial.
It seems to follow the pattern of past peace negotiations with the militant group. Each peace deal further empowered the terrorist outfit. The latest talks are likely to be used by the TTP to reorganise itself and regain its space in the tribal districts. There are already some reports of the revival of TTP activities in parts of the area. The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan seems to have further emboldened the proscribed network.
It was in December 2007 that several militant groups operating in different parts of Fata and KP formed the TTP under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. The TTP had an agenda to enforce its own retrogressive version of Sharia rule in the country. Its birth came in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad that saw a massive rise in terrorist attacks in the country.
There is no doubt that the formation of the TTP had the blessings of Al Qaeda. They jointly carried out high-profile terrorist attacks across the country targeting civilians as well as security installations. The nexus was responsible for the devastating attacks on the GHQ and ISI installations. By 2008, the militants had virtually established their rule over large swathes of territory in northern Pakistan presenting an existentialist threat to the country. It was on Pakistan’s urging that the TTP was declared a global terrorist group.
The TTP benefited from the weak response of the security establishment and a series of peace deals, with the state virtually surrendering its writ. It was only after 2009 that the security forces launched massive operations against the militant group. It took more than six years before the tribal belt was cleared of the militants at a huge human and economic cost. Hundreds of thousands of troops were involved in the action. The massacre at Peshawar’s Army Public School that left almost 150 students and staff members dead was the most heinous terrorist attack in the country’s history.
Most critical was the North Waziristan operation that finally broke the back of the TTP. Pushed into Afghanistan, the group disintegrated into several factions, some joining the so-called Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter. Many others were reportedly provided sanctuaries by various Afghan Taliban groups. That has also given the Afghan Taliban huge leverage over the TTP.
Apparently, it was after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan that backchannel contacts between Pakistani security agencies and the TTP were established. The talks were facilitated by the Haqqani Network that has long maintained close ties with the Pakistani militant group.
It is not that the state should not talk to militant groups but the real issue is on what terms. Negotiations make sense only after the militants agree to a complete surrender of arms. But there is no such indication. The TTP has only agreed to a short-term ceasefire, and as has happened in the past, will use the truce to regain its lost space.
Most troubling, however, is the absence of a clear strategy on the part of the state on how to deal with terrorist and violent faith-based extremist groups. There has not been any effort to develop a national consensus on such critical national security issues.
Curiously, it was in a media interview that the prime minister made the disclosure that his government was in talks with the fiercest of militant groups. Apparently, the issue was not even deliberated in the cabinet let alone parliament. The opposition was only briefed on the development by the military leadership this week. But the prime minister is still not willing to take the nation into confidence on this sensitive issue.
The ambiguity around the terms of negotiations has made the talks extremely controversial. The whole episode has reinforced suspicions that it is pressure from the Afghan Taliban that has compelled Pakistan to engage with the TTP. The change in Afghanistan and our support for the conservative regime there appears to have also caused the authorities to soft-pedal the group.
Any deal with the TTP is likely to reverse the gains the country has made in its battle against terrorism and violent extremism. Unconditional negotiations will legitimise the terrorist group. The shameful deal with the TLP last week and talks with the TTP should be cause for serious concern. It certainly raises questions about our resolve to fight terrorism.
The writer is the author of No-Win War — The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow.
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2021