ISLAMABAD: The government has decided to reveal the contents of the agreement with the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in the next 10 days even as fresh details emerge that the military leadership had advised against the use of force against the protesters after Prime Minister Imran Khan had authorised it, Dawn has learnt.
After having taken the political leadership on board during the proceedings of the parliamentary committee on national security on Monday, the government has in principle decided to make public the agreement it signed with the TLP but kept secret till its implementation was well under way.
Participants of the briefing told Dawn the senior military officials informed them about how the agreement came about and why it was decided to keep it secret for this long. According to these officials, the primary objective was to get the TLP protesters off the streets so the situation could return to normal. In this context, there was a concern that unveiling the contents of the agreement at an early stage could have triggered a public debate that may have impeded its implementation that in turn was linked with the ending of the protest. Now that the TLP has decided to call off the protest, the agreement will be made public in full, these sources claim.
Details of talks with TLP, TTP begin to surface
But before the agreement was stitched up, there was the delicate matter of how to deal with the protesters who were marching on to Islamabad by surmounting all obstacles laid in their way by law enforcement agencies. According to sources privy to the fast-paced developments taking place, the prime minister had authorised the use of force against the TLP marchers. Once this authorisation was relayed, the military leadership reviewed the operational dynamics and possible consequences of using force against the crowd. They calculated what it would entail to apply force against the marchers, and how many casualties could take place if the law enforcers were to use the last resort and open fire on those refusing to disperse. The leadership also factored into this calculation the probable blowback of casualties and its impact on public opinion.
Some of these details were shared by the military leadership with the participants of Monday’s briefing but many are now coming out in greater detail and clarity.
According to sources, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa presented all the pros and cons of using force against TLP workers when the political and military leadership gathered to discuss the issue at the National Security Committee meeting that took place on October 29. People who know the details of this meeting have confirmed to Dawn that the army chief said if the decision-makers were ready to pay the price for using force against the TLP, then the military would do as ordered. However, mention was made of the previous instances where the government had used force against citizens – Lal Masjid and the Model Town incident – and participants of the meeting were reminded of the consequences of both episodes.
By the time this meeting took place however, the government had already taken a tough line and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had quoted the prime minister as telling the cabinet on October 27 that the government would not allow anyone to take the law into their hands and challenge the writ of the state. The information minister had also described the TLP as a “militant” organisation that had links with India.
The military leadership, however, advised against the use of force arguing that it was not a solution. It was then decided to opt for a negotiated settlement in order to, as one source put it, ‘avoid bloodshed’. This is when Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman was identified as someone who could mediate an agreement given his standing as a senior Barelvi cleric. He was accordingly flown in from Karachi, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Read more: Red Zone Files: Mufti in the middle
Proverbially it may be history, but in reality the ink on the agreement is still not dry. Senior officials involved in the negotiation believe the agreement is ‘absolutely in favour of the state’ and that the TLP will have no justification to revert to violent protests again.
The unveiling of the contents of the agreement with the TLP – expected in the next 10 days – will likely spark off a debate that may involve a review of how decisions were made, changed and finally implemented in light of the difficult options available to the government.
Talks with TTP
The participants of Monday’s briefing by the military leadership were also apprised of the status of negotiations with the banned TTP that have made headlines in recent days. The information minister had confirmed after the briefing that the government and the TTP had agreed on a ceasefire for a month while these negotiations progressed in a bid to reach an agreement. However, the context of how and why the government of Pakistan entered into these negotiations is also becoming apparent.
High-level sources have told Dawn the government’s assessment is that it has a window of about six to eight months to strike an agreement with the TTP from a position of strength. This assessment is based on the following reasons:
(1) India was one of the primary supporters and financiers of the TTP based in Afghanistan. It provided money, weapons and other support so that the TTP could maintain its capacity to launch terror attacks on Pakistani soil. Since the takeover by the Taliban, India has withdrawn from Afghanistan and the TTP is weakened due to the lack of support it was enjoying. However, officials assess that India is likely to start regaining a foothold back in Afghanistan in the coming months and this could embolden the TTP. In addition, the TTP is also deprived of other sources of external support now that foreign players have withdrawn from Afghanistan. This situation may not persist for long.
(2) The Taliban’s dependency on Pakistan is also greater now and may decrease over time as other players enter the equation once international recognition is accorded. This dependency on Pakistan at this moment means the Taliban can push the TTP towards a deal that Pakistan favours. The Taliban, according to these officials, have greater incentive to ensure the TTP agrees to the terms being offered by Pakistan. The situation could be different six to eight months from now.
(3) Pakistan’s military and counter-terrorism capacity is primed to lean heavily on the TTP and this is buttressed by the fact that border fencing between Pakistan and Afghanistan is almost complete.
The participants of the meeting of the parliamentary committee on national security were informed that Pakistan’s ‘red lines’ in the context of the negotiations with the TTP were clear: TTP would have to accept the constitution and laws of the land and there would be no compromise on this. Sources also confirmed that those among the TTP who were involved in heinous crimes would be proceeded against as per law. Only ‘foot soldiers’ may be released.
In yet another important development, high-level sources have also confirmed that in order to ensure that lethal weapons left behind by the Americans in Afghanistan do not fall into the hands of TTP and other terrorists, Pakistan is buying back a huge cache of these weapons from the Taliban government who are now in possession of these weapons. It is estimated that US forces left behind nearly 200,000 deadly weapons. Taliban need the money and Pakistan wants to do whatever it can to make sure TTP fighters do not get access to them. According to these sources, Pakistan has already bought a large number of these weapons, which may be given to paramilitary forces like the FC.
While the negotiations with the TTP are being led by intelligence officials, the military leadership informed the participants of the briefing for the parliamentary committee on national security that once the basic agreement with the TTP was documented, it would be presented to the political leadership for final approval. This may mean that the parliament would get to debate it before it is officially signed by the government. Sources said if the political leadership rejected the agreement, the military would revert to kinetic actions against the TTP.
“However conflicts usually end on the table,” one source said. “In another six months, anything could happen in Afghanistan.”
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2021