PESHAWAR: The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is vying to enter the political mainstream as talks with the outlawed group — sanctioned by parliament — inch forward amid reservations expressed by experts and victims alike over demands, including reversal of Fata’s merger, put forth by the militant outfit to “gain political legitimacy”.

For experts and victims of the violence perpetrated by the TTP during its reign of terror, it is very difficult to trust the militant outfit, as several questions about the future of the talks and their possible fallout remain unaddressed.

The primary reason behind this trust deficit is the fact that the militant outfit reneged on its promises made during multiple rounds of talks in return for peace in the tribal districts since TTP’s establishment in December 2007. The exodus of US-led Nato forces and the takeover of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban in August 2021 seem to have given the group a new lease of life, as the latter not only reorganised itself but also received recognition as a force to reckon with, after Islamabad agreed to hold fresh talks with the group under the auspices of the interim Taliban government.

Opposition to Fata merger

In a bid to gain political legitimacy by cashing in on political issues, the TTP recently praised the Federal Shariat Court’s order to the government to implement an Islamic, interest-free banking system within five years.

“Raising voice against an interest-based economy is commendable,” said a statement released to the media on July 8, as the TTP took up the narrative of Pakistan’s religious parties that have been campaigning against the interest-based economy for decades.

Experts raise questions over integration of banned outfit, possible fallout of talks

It seems the group has now softened its stance by putting forward demands which are political in nature, as the first demand from the TTP negotiators, which took many analysts in Pakistan and abroad by surprise, was the reversal of the merger of ex-Fata region with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Though Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah promptly dismissed the TTP demand, the group’s chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud reiterated the call for the reversal during a recent interview with a YouTuber in Kabul. Compared to the former leaders of the group, Mehsud appeared articulate and his tone was a clear break from the more aggressive stance of his predecessors.

Comprising seven tribal agencies and six Frontier Regions (FRs), the erstwhile Fata was merged with KP through 25th Amendment in 2018.

Some political parties with a religious and nationalist bent, such as Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, and other influential tribal elders have been opposing the merger. Even pro-status quo elements within the civil-military establishment expressed displeasure with the decision to merge the erstwhile Fata with the province.

The demand for the reversal of the merger may become a shared goal of the TTP, certain political forces and those with an “anti-reforms outlook”.

While commenting on the demand for the reversal of Fata’s merger, Dr Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi, chairperson of the Department of International Relations at the University of Peshawar, said: “The TTP has jumped on the bandwagon to garner public support for itself.” Likewise, he said, “The TTP knew the vast majority of the public was against an interest-based economy, hence the media statement to cash in on an opportunity [presented by the Federal Shariat Court] to gain popularity.”

He hinted at the possibility that certain political and religious groups as well as the TTP may end up having the same agenda in the future.

‘Refined demands’

Peshawar-based political commentator Dr Khadim Hussain said the Kabul jirga in June that also had representation from political elements helped “refined” the TTP demands as it sent a “message that an agenda in contrast to the Constitution may not be achievable”.

“Recent NSC [National Security Committee] meetings also suggested openness on part of the establishment to streamline the TTP,” he said. “There is even a willingness on part of certain elements in TTP leadership to open up to mainstreaming,” he added, “whereby they could take part in elections, organise as a political party, and even formally join the ranks of security forces as done in the case of Swat.”

“Through its political statements, it appears that the TTP is preparing its foot-soldiers to work within the constitutional framework of the country,” he said while terming the efforts an attempt to reposition the group in line with its agenda.

One of the TTP demands was against the disarming of the group. Dr Hussain said if the establishment cedes that, then the group would exist as a private militia for which there is no room in the constitution. “It appears we are following the classic paradigm of reconciliation whereby disarmament would happen alongside reintegration and rehabilitation,” he said while referring to the strategy Pakistan employed to bring the outfit to table. “But even for that, the parliament and the civil society will have to be taken into confidence. Somebody has to take responsibility to mainstream the TTP and only the parliament can do it.”

Victims matter

While alluding to violence perpetrated by the terror outfit across Pakistan, Dr Hussain said the government could not make peace with the militant outfit while ignoring the victims of their violence. He said everyone, including political parties and civil society, would need to talk to the families of martyrs to convince them regarding the talks with the TTP. “Someone will have to speak to [South Waziristan MNA] Ali Wazir and the Bilour family to convince them to consider the mainstreaming of TTP,” he added.

Equally important questions are about “the mode of the mainstreaming of militants”. “Would they lay arms, and disband? Will it be registered as a political party or a civil society organisation? What is the plan of the state to deal with splinter groups even if the talks concluded successfully?” he asked.

“All these issues have to be resolved before integration of the TTP can possibly happen.”

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2022

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