THE state institutions made a mistake by deciding to initiate peace talks with the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. The talks were doomed from the start. They allowed the TTP to regain their lost political and operational thrust. Though the suggestion came from the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan’s state institutions were more than willing to negotiate with the terrorist group they had time and again declared a defeated entity. The strategic and political reasoning behind the decision is not known.
It is important for the new military leadership to re-strategise Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy, as stated in a recent presser issued by the ISPR. Yet, it is the responsibility of the government and the security institutions to decide how these goals can be achieved. It is heartening that a National Security Committee meeting on Friday declared terrorists as the enemies of Pakistan and vowed to respond “with full force” against those who challenge the country.
There should be an open discussion on the country’s Afghan policy within and outside parliament, including on terrorism in Pakistan. Pakistan’s support to the first Taliban regime was never a secret. But the Taliban partnered with its enemies including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda, and sectarian terrorist groups operating in the country. The Taliban’s current regime in Afghanistan is not much different. Needless to say, Pakistan had high expectations that the Taliban would not only detach themselves from groups like the TTP but also help dismantle these organisations and reintegrate or rehabilitate their cadres.
The security institutions made a strategic error when they failed to recognise the ideological bond between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban. Nor did they show keenness to probe the anti-Pakistan sentiments persisting among Taliban commanders and foot soldiers, although Pakistan has remained concerned about the presence of similar sentiments among ordinary Afghans. However, understanding the anti-Pakistan sentiment among the Taliban was critically important as ideological relationships within the militant groups were also feeding it. Had the security forces studied this single factor, they would not have initiated talks with the TTP.
Pakistan’s CT mechanism needs constant overhaul as the nature of the threat changes fast.
Instead of looking at them as old allies, Pakistan needs to engage with the Taliban in a bilateral state-to-state framework to seek security cooperation. State institutions should not buy into any such argument or narrative by the Taliban that the TTP is Pakistan’s internal issue, and they cannot intervene in the matter. This is merely an excuse to tuck away their close ties with the militant group. Pakistan should initiate talks with the Taliban rather than acting on their advice to negotiate with the TTP.
The issue’s sensitivity requires that such bilateral talks between the two states should be held on a track-one basis and avoid any other double or half-tracks. Engaging jirgas and religious scholars for confidence-building measures has proved counterproductive so far, and many of the members of such delegations have proved spoilers rather than helping the state reach a consensus. The Taliban regime should rethink what kind of policies towards its neighbours would be productive — providing safe havens to the terrorists, absorbing them into the Taliban fold, or enhancing bilateral and multilateral counterterrorism cooperation?
Terrorism has already caused huge damage to the Pakistani state, to society and to diplomatic relations; the power elites have to strictly observe a zero-terrorism policy. Any compromise on the terrorism policy can cause big losses to the country and affect the capacity of the counterterrorism agencies, making them uncertain while conceiving and eliminating the threats. It enhances losses when state institutions soften their tone towards terrorist groups.
Pakistan has a functional counterterrorism mechanism that needs constant overhaul as the nature of the threat changes fast. Still, all counterterrorism departments should collaborate, and a regular audit of their performance is essential not only for ensuring transparency but also for knowing their response and adaptability if a new or sudden threat arises.
National resolve on countering terrorism should be an integral part of the policy. Though the military and civilian leaderships often stress the point, the practice is different. If former prime minister Imran Khan had not mentioned his policy on the TTP during an interview with a Turkish channel, the whole process would have remained secretive for a long time. The more secretive such processes are, the more damage they can cause. The PDM coalition government had blindly endorsed the ‘talks policy’, and when the anti-TTP protest started in the Malakand region, the security apparatus and civilian government brought the whole process to the surface. When transparency in the process was demanded, the government said it would take parliament into confidence for the peace process with the TTP. But it did not happen; nor can the current parliament initiate any debate on such a crucial security issue.
The fact of the matter is that the political leadership has no intention of intervening in security policies, for which it entirely relies on the security institutions. The input from these institutions is significant as security is their core mandate, but decision-making also requires the process to be inclusive. The security institutions took the liberty of adopting such an attitude, but whenever any policy backfires, the civilian government has to take the blame.
The blame game over security issues is not new, and political parties deliberately indulge in it to save themselves from probable security threats. There is no difference between the statement made by Mian Shehbaz Sharif in 2010, when he was the chief minister of Punjab, and a recent comment by PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry. Shehbaz Sharif had requested the Taliban not to launch attacks in Punjab because both opposed former military dictator Pervez Musharraf. Fawad Chaudhry, in his statement, claimed that Imran Khan “was the only respected Pakistani leader in Afghanistan”. The reason he said was because “his hands were not tainted with the blood of Afghans”. One can understand the underlying message in his words. Such statements and responses must be scrutinised by parliament, if not by the party’s political leadership.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2023