Nearly a decade ago, life and death was not just a state of being and nothingness for the Karachi-based Aurangzeb Alai of the Awami National Party (ANP). He was part of a cat and mouse game, where his very survival was at stake.
The game was simple. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) would have to kill him to win it, and he had to stop that from happening.
Alai came face to face with TTP’s best shooters, and braved a 24kg bomb explosion outside his house that killed 13 party workers. He survived because of his luck, or minor miscalculations from the other side.
In other words, he has always won the game, but he is now worried about the ongoing negotiations with the TTP, facilitated by the Afghan Taliban. He feels that he might have to play the same game again.
Fear and uncertainty grips the survivors of Tehreek-i-Taliban terror while Pakistan negotiates with the militant group in Kabul
Alai is a former Union Council Chairman from Mominabad, a Pakhtun-dominated blue-collar neighbourhood of Karachi. At a time when party workers either moved back to their ancestral homes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or fled abroad to avoid the TTP’s mayhem, he stayed put. According to ANP’s Sindh chapter, between 2011 to 2014, as many as 65 workers, including district presidents, were killed in Karachi.
“We went through hell during that time,” says Alai in Pashto-accented Urdu. “Picking up limbs of comrades after a blast is not easy. The flashbacks are too strong and will stay with me all my life. I am a scarred man. I have survived, but a part of me does not belong to me anymore. It is stuck in the bloody past.”
The Taliban militants entered Karachi in two waves — once fleeing the military’s Operation Rah-i-Rast in Swat in 2009, and the other after being pushed out of South Waziristan later that year. The Taliban militants who migrated to Karachi from Waziristan mainly settled, and formed strongholds, in the localities of Quaidabad, Manghopir, Ittehad Town and Sultanabad.
“Karachi had three active militant groups,” explains Zia Ur Rehman, journalist and author of Karachi in Turmoil. “The Tehreek-i-Taliban Swat, [the Tehrik-i-Taliban] Mohmand and [the Tehrik-i-Taliban] Mehsud, who were involved in criminal activities, including extortion, targeting ANP members and Pakhtun civil-society activists, as well police personnel and polio-vaccination teams.”
The Taliban militants held a strong grip over the area through their offices known as ‘Crime Control’. Such was their violent might in their strongholds that the local police stations did not take the risk of staying open after daytime. It took full-fledged police-paramilitary operations starting from 2013 to flush out or neutralise Taliban from these areas.
“Closing down their safe routes to Waziristan and Afghanistan was detrimental in our success against them,” says Raja Umar Khattab, in-charge of the Sindh Police’s Counter Terrorism Department. “The closure of bomb factories broke their supply chain and helped us control the situation.”
Meanwhile, on June 19, 2022, the Sindh Police announced the arrest of a TTP commander, Muhammad Ilyas, whose name was in the Red Book, a document containing the names and details of most wanted people. Ilyas, who was allegedly involved in the killing of policemen and ANP workers in Karachi, was hiding in Saudi Arabia after fleeing the 2013 operation.
“We continue to hunt for TTP terrorists,” says Khattab, brushing off concern that the militant group are still a threat to the city. “They are not as strong as they were previously, but their facilitators are still around.”
But as the city finally finds relative peace, after healing from its violent past, hundreds of kilometres away in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the TTP have engaged in negotiations since September 2021, facilitated by the Afghan Taliban.
The terrorist group, under its commander Omar Khalid Khurasani, has lately declared an indefinite ceasefire as a ‘confidence-building measure’ for the talks, after dialogue with a tribal jirga. Also as a ‘confidence-building measure’ for the dialogue, Pakistan has released nearly 102 TTP prisoners.
“The Afghan Taliban takeover has changed the regional dynamics,” says Rehman. “As the TTP remained brothers-in-arms against the American forces, the Afghan Taliban does not see taking action against TTP in their interests and ideological principles. Hence, the only option available on the table is to find a political solution through negotiations.”
A central point of contention in the negotiation process for both sides is the status of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, and the treatment of the Newly Merged Districts of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). This development is parallel to the Election Commission of Pakistan’s recent announcement of the completion of its district demarcation process, which has identified 266 national constituencies, down from 272, owing in part to Fata’s change in status, notes the think-tank Tabadlab.
Last month, the military secured the nod of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security for peace talks with the TTP. Apart from Mohsin Dawar, head of National Democratic Movement (NDM), there was a general consensus that the talks should be held, Dawn reported.
According to a statement from the prime minister’s office, on July 5, “The Parliamentary Committee on National Security formally approved the process of negotiations and the formation of a Parliamentary Oversight Committee. In the meeting with the political parties’ representatives, the military promised that no extra-constitutional concessions would be given to the TTP.”
Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the US Institute of Peace maintains that, as the negotiations have picked up momentum, Pakistani leaders have tried to convince senior Deoband leader Mufti Taqi Usmani to intervene, and convince the TTP to back off. But there appears to be some reluctance about getting involved on the part of the Deoband leadership, for reasons that are not completely clear.
While the state and terror group remain involved in the intricacies of negotiations, unease grapples Alai and his party workers.
“We are party to this conflict,” he says. “We have lost people, and paid the price of the war with our blood. Where are we in this dialogue? We want this conflict to end, but we have not given anyone the right to make decisions for us without taking us into confidence.”
While Alai’s demands solely rest on the inclusion of affectees of the war in the dialogue with the TTP, there are also some who have raised their apprehensions over the entire exercise.
“Mark my words on record, whether I am here or not,” warned Mohsin Dawar, elected MNA from North Waziristan, in an assembly session. “The state will not be able to tolerate the [outcome of the] experiment which is being done now.” Neither the government nor the military establishment responded to him.
The author is a graduate of Politics and International Relations from Royal Holloway University of London. He tweets @ebadahmed
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 24th, 2022