PAKISTAN’S ongoing talks with the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan offer a colossal opportunity to the Afghan Taliban regime in Kabul to prove its willingness and ability to deal with a multitude of foreign militants in Afghanistan. The world is sceptical about the Taliban’s pledges. But if the Taliban can help Pakistan neutralise the TTP, it might pave the way for the recognition of their government by at least a few of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours.
By fulfilling their commitments regarding regional militant groups, the Taliban can also win the trust of China, Russia and the Central Asian states. However, this will not be easy. Apart from ideological affinity, the Taliban have a past of coexistence and shared armed resistance in Afghanistan with many of these religiously inspired militant groups. Some reports are suggesting that many Taliban leaders do not endorse the negotiations between Pakistan and the TTP as they believe that the Pakistani militants are not a separate entity from them. It is also not certain how the Afghan Taliban, or the Haqqanis, will deal with the TTP if Pakistan-TTP negotiations collapse.
Many experts believe that Pakistan’s simple demand for the Taliban would have been strict action against the TTP and expulsion of its leadership from Afghanistan. The Taliban however chose, either on their own or on the request of Pakistan, to offer mediation between the TTP and the Pakistani state just as Pakistan had facilitated the talks between them and the US; Sirajuddin Haqqani is apparently acting as Zalmay Khalilzad in the TTP’s talks with Pakistan. Pakistan’s security institutions are giving the impression that the state is negotiating with the TTP from a position of strength as the group is currently deprived of resources and foreign support in Afghanistan. Some media reports have claimed that the security establishment fears Pakistan could lose its influence over the Afghan Taliban once other players including India start entering the equation. If there is such a fear then one should ask what Pakistan has achieved by investing huge resources in Afghanistan, supporting the Taliban at the cost of internal security, and burning its strategic and diplomatic capital.
As reported in the media, Pakistan should not allow the TTP militants to have access to the weapons left behind by the Americans in Afghanistan; but that does not provide any strong justification for negotiations with the terrorists. It is understandable that states employ both political and military approaches to counter insurgents. However, the TTP has lost the ability to convert its militant movement into a large-scale insurgency in the merged tribal districts of ex-Fata. The TTP can achieve that goal only with Afghan Taliban support.
Experience suggests that after every deal the TTP gained more power.
The government also claims that talks with the TTP are underway in line with the Constitution. If the TTP accepts any solution within the ambit of the constitution nothing could be better. But the group regards the document as un-Islamic and Pakistani rulers as ‘transgressors’ and puppets of the ‘infidel’ West. Almost all religious extremist groups and even some religious parties developed this narrative over time, which was later adopted by Al Qaeda. Now the TTP is its flagbearer.
The security institutions also mix up deradicalisation approaches with amnesty and reconciliation. No one can oppose the idea of deradicalisation of the detainees who surrendered and did not commit any heinous crime. However, general amnesty or entertaining the demands of militants who are not ready to review their ideological and political paradigm could prove to be a dangerous move. Using such concessions, the TTP could relocate to the areas it had once lost, with or without weapons, where its cadres would certainly propagate the group’s ideology. A little public support and empowerment would be enough for the group to reassert the implementation of its version of Sharia. Secondly, in the form of a ‘reconciled TTP’ in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Afghan Taliban would have vocal support inside Pakistan, which would always look towards Kabul.
Indeed, Pakistan has very little time to neutralise the TTP threat. The militant groups are usually very receptive to the offer of talks, and they extract legitimacy, and time, through such offers. However, it is always hard for the state. The Pakistani state has already tested the TTP in several peace deals. Experience suggests that after every deal the Pakistani Taliban gained more power to propagate their narrative and to flex their muscles.
Someone in the power corridors may be thinking that the TTP will weaken the sub-nationalist forces in the tribal districts, and also minimise the risk of an anti-Afghan Taliban movement in Pakistan. So far, there is no sign that the tribal districts could become the base for an anti-Taliban movement, but the return of TTP militants will increase tensions in the bordering region.
Such critical policies should not be based on mere hypotheses and must have solid empirical evidence. The idea of negotiation with the TTP is not new and has been in the air for the last several years. In a presser in January 2019, military officials said that the state was working on some mechanism to sort out the TTP and affiliated militant movements. At that time, it was argued that TTP militants could join the Islamic State (IS) group if there was no engagement plan for the abandoned militants. However, only a few individuals and small splinter groups from the TTP had joined IS. The reason was that IS was very exclusive in its nature and the TTP was closely associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Had an amnesty been granted to the TTP on such assumptions, what sort of security situation would Pakistan have been facing right now?
It seems Pakistan is providing maximum support to the Taliban regime for the sake of its geoeconomic and strategic interests. There is a legitimate reason why Pakistan doesn’t want a hostile government in Kabul but pardoning the Taliban’s Pakistani supporters is not a good idea. It reflects that state institutions have very few ideas. Parliament and inclusive policymaking processes can help widen policy options but bridging the trust deficit among institutions is another big challenge.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2021