Last weekend, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) offered to start talks with the government, if Pakistan released seven of their leaders, and three politicians promised to act as guarantors.

The TTP's mediators-of-choice – they asked Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Munawwar Hassan of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), and Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) to step in as guarantors–have all declined the offer, even as they urged the government to pursue talks.

Few realised that this was not a new offer. Hakimullah Mehsud had actually offered talks in December 2012.

The offer came after an earlier attempt by the government to strike a deal with the Pakistan Taliban, which the TTP rejected.

However, when Hakimullah Mehsud made the offer back in December, it was actually rejected by the government, arguably because it came on top of an attack against a Pakistan Air Force base at Peshawar Airport, the murder of ANP's Bashir Ahmed Bilour, and the kidnapping and killing of 21 Pakistani soldiers outside Peshawar at the end of December.

According to some observers and analysts, the TTP’s offer for peace negotiations seems insincere, and badly timed.

Security analyst Ejaz Haider says that “preconditions do not equal talks, they equal dictation.”

Others point to the timing – the political forces that the TTP has addressed are all preoccupied with the upcoming elections. If all goes according to plan, the assemblies will be dissolved by March 16, and a temporary government will take over – a caretaker set-up that will neither have the capacity, nor the mandate to carry out peace negotiations with the TTP.

This is why security analyst, Ayesha Siddiqa, calls the TTP offer ‘long-term’. Given that the army and the intelligence agencies are the de facto decision-makers when it comes to Pakistan's security policy, the TTP timing could be irrelevant.

The government does not control the movements of troops in the tribal belt–or for that matter, anywhere. Any negotiations would, at best, have to be approved by the security agencies, and at worst be orchestrated by them. “The timing does not matter too much. The political parties play a role–they formalise the agreements in the public realm–but we all know the security agencies are behind a lot of this,” says Siddiqa.

“That, however, does not take away from the fact that the TTP might be using this offer as a cover for something else: regrouping.”

Stepping back and gathering strength

Siddiqa points to the “16 or so agreements” that the TTP has tried to make in the past. “All of them have failed,” says Siddiqa.

According to her, the TTP typically steps forward and offers negotiation when they need some breathing space.

At the moment, army operations on the ground and drone attacks from the top may have played a role in squeezing the Taliban, and could potentially have prompted them to seek a temporary truce.

If so, this would not be the first time.

In March of 2009, the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar sent an emissary led by former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mullah Abdullah Zakir, to convince Baitullah Mehsud, Mullah Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur to set aside their differences and focus on operations against foreign troops in Afghanistan – at that point, the US was preparing to send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of a surge by President Barack Obama (though the president refrained from naming it).

The idea was to shift the focus from attacks against the Pakistan government–also to gain some breathing space on that end–to instead focus on battling foreign troops across the border.

“This time around, we have to remember that the death of Mullah Nazir was no small loss,” says Siddiqa.

Mullah Nazir was killed in a drone strike on January 3, causing “unrest in the ranks of the Taliban” according to another analyst.

Mullah Nazir was known as a “good Taliban”, who confined his attacks to foreign troops across the border and stayed away from attacking the Pakistani state at home. However, he was still ideologically aligned with the Taliban as a whole.

“These guys need to figure out what to do next, and offering talks so that they get some space is something that we've seen before,” says Siddiqa.

There are also indications that the US will continue to pursue, or increase, drone attacks in the tribal areas. For example, the latest drone attack took place on February 8, and John O Brennan is set to be the next CIA Director.

Brennan is known to be the architect of Obama's expansive drone programme, and was one of the members of President George W Bush's administration who approved torture.

And, though scantily covered in the Pakistani press, stories of army operations and unrest in the tribal agencies have peppered national newspapers, which may also be another form of pressure on the TTP.

Is Hakimullah Mehsud even representative?

Another major question that has arisen in Islamabad is the question of Mehsud's legitimacy. “Hakimullah Mehsud does not sit at the apex making all sorts of decisions. There are factions, and splinter groups within the factions. It is impossible to know whether the offer by Hakimullah Mehsud even represents a larger wish within the TTP to call for peace negotiations,” says Haider.

Other observers say that, of all the factions within the TTP, peace negotiations would only make sense with Hakimullah Mehsud, since his faction is the most anti-government of all.

Hakimullah took over as the head of the TTP after a drone attack killed Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009. While some factions of the TTP already have a functional peace agreement with the Pakistan Army, Hakimullah Mehsud has continued attacks–the latest one took place against a military checkpost in Lakki Marwat on February 2, killing 13 soldiers and 11 civilians.

For Khalid Aziz, the former Chief Secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a civil servant for 30 years, the fact remains that the TTP is not a state.

“When Pakistan negotiates with India, there is a whole setup that falls in line. When it comes to the state, there is talk of a hierarchy, and a set of decisions that everyone adheres to. That is not the case with the TTP. Here you are talking of a network of groups. And that makes negotiations more difficult,” says Aziz.



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