The government of Pakistan has been holding talks with the largest militant-terrorist organization of the country for the last more than a month with no agreement achieved so far, but some prospects have emerged of the “success” of the negotiations as officials have reportedly explained the process and its outcome.
According to media reports, the government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, has reached an understanding with the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for a ceasefire on the condition that authorities would set free some militant commanders that have been in captivity, some for more than a decade, along with several foot soldiers.
Insofar as peace talks with the banned TTP are concerned, there have been two opinions about it in the public in Pakistan. The dominant opinion has been that the state in no way shall hold negotiations with the terrorist group as it would be tantamount to a surrender of the state. The situation, according to this stream of opinion, would be extremely dangerous for Pakistan and the state. The second stream of opinion about the talks with the TTP has been that there can be no interminable fighting and, therefore, at some time peace negotiations have to be held to put an end to a constant source of tension in the country as well as insecurity thereof.
Both opinions hold water, but it depends on the nature of the militant group and more specifically, on its demands to hold peace negotiations with it. In this context, it is important to understand the TTP and its demands. The militant outfit came into existence in 2007, in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) incidence in the heart of Islamabad when the General Pervez Musharraf regime had carried out a military operation against the mosque administration and students, who had employed terrorism to intimidate the local population. The Red Mosque administration and students were demanding the imposition of their brand of Shariah in Pakistan and instead of launching a political struggle, they had taken up arms to implement it. When the government successfully quelled the insurgency, it had a backlash in the entire country, particularly in the former FATA region, from militants who were already present there and had gained ground due to the United State-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces’ all-out war against the fellow Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. As Pakistan was an official ally of the US in the so-called war on terror, most important global militant groups, like Al-Qaeda, which had helped Pakistani militant Baitullah Mehsud formed the TTP, asked the latter to call upon Islamabad to give up its alliance with Washington as the “infidel” forces were fighting against Islam in Afghanistan and elsewhere or face terrorist attacks. As it was nearly impossible for Pakistan to come out of the alliance with the US, the TTP started attacking Pakistanis and the security forces in the length and breadth of the country, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and specifically the former tribal areas (FATA). This resulted in a large number of deaths and destruction in the regions. Around 83,000 Pakistanis were martyred, including around 9,000 security personnel. There has been a lot of blood on the hands of the militants, whereas the doctrine and demands of the TTP have been quite unclear and also unacceptable. For instance, the TTP does not believe in the Constitution of Pakistan and still holds this position.
TTP commanders may have stopped refusing to accept the Pakistan state Constitution but they have never declared to have accepted it. In this situation, holding talks with the TTP has raised a number of questions which Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has not been able to answer satisfactorily. Holding talks with the TTP and reaching an agreement would have a huge public cost for the PTI government, as the talks are being held with a group that does not recognise the state of Pakistan. Secondly, it has not announced giving up arms and terrorism. Thirdly, it has a lot of blood of Pakistanis on its hands. How could the government justify an agreement with an outfit which has killed its citizens and martyred thousands of its security personnel? Would it be a betrayal with the blood of all these Pakistanis?
The peace talks with the TTP in the present situation also do not seem broadly logical. Firstly, the TTP has splintered into many groups and there is no unified command and control structure of the group, which used to be the case under its founder, Baituallah Mehsud, and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud. Secondly, there has been relative peace and stability in Pakistan since 2017, when the military launched the last of its grand military offensives, Operation Radd-ul-Fassad, against the TTP and associated militant groups. After it, the TTP has been effectively marginalized and largely neutralized and now there is no point in holding talks with it.
Then, what is the reason that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration is holding talks with the TTP? There could possibly be two reasons for it. The first is the renewed terrorist attacks from the TTP in the last three months or more, specifically after the Afghan Taliban taking over Kabul on August 15. After taking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have set free hundreds of militants incarcerated in jails of Afghanistan in the governments of President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani. The prisoners included a large number of TTP militants, who had fled Pakistan when the country’s security forces launched an operation against them. The Afghan governments of Karzai and Ghani had held many TTP men captive to be used as pawns against Pakistan. On their part, the TTP free men in Afghanistan have been fighting under the command of the Afghan Taliban and have been supportive of their efforts to defeat the Afghan National Security Forces across Afghanistan. Thus, the Afghan Taliban owe immensely to TTP militants for their critical support to defeat the Afghan forces. Pakistan has always been very close to the Afghan Taliban, but the only bone of contention between the two sides is the hosting and protection of the TTP in Afghanistan by the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban, on their part, have taken the position that they would not allow Afghan soil to be used against any of its neighbours, most importantly Pakistan. However, they have also been desirous of peace between Pakistan and the TTP. Unfortunately, the TTP has a lot of blood of Pakistanis on its hands. Therefore, it is very difficult for the government of Pakistan to hold talks with it and that too on the latter’s term.
Apparently, Pakistan is holding talks with the Pakistani Taliban at the behest of the Afghan Taliban and that is the problem with the process. Islamabad should have held talks with the TTP on its terms and timings. Nevertheless, holding talks with any militant or terrorist group is not a bad idea at all. But the state and authorities must enter into negotiations with any militant or terrorist group to make it give up violence and arms instead of giving them space to regroup and become a threat again to the state and its citizens.