In an interview with Turkish media aired on October 1, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed that his government is in talks with the Pakistan Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP). Following a period of relative dormancy, the TTP has been significantly more active this year. Imran Khan admitted that Islamabad is offering the group a number of rewards – from political amnesty to prisoner releases – in return for laying down arms.
Such a deal does not serve Pakistan’s national interests and it will not work because the TTP, like before, is unlikely to abide by its terms. Aside from their implications for war and peace, the prime minister’s comments were deeply uncomfortable for those who have not forgotten his role in the bad old days of 2007-2014, when the Taliban brought the state to its knees.
In politics, memories can be short. Today, it is worth remembering what role Imran Khan played during the peak of the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan. If all he had done was maintain a rigorous silence during the conflict, Pakistan would have been substantially better off. He was the avatar for a deeply sympathetic position towards the Taliban. Not for nothing did he earn the moniker “Taliban Khan”. By what in hindsight can only be termed an accident of history, the national government between 2008 and 2013 was led by three parties all more or less ideologically opposed to the TTP – the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and the Awami National Party (ANP). Perhaps not coincidentally, all three today are shadows of their former selves.
From the perspective of pursuing a war against violent extremists, this government make-up was relatively fortuitous. It meant that at the political level at least, if not the public writ large, the country correctly identified the Taliban as a deathly enemy, one that could only be defeated by force. But Imran Khan stymied any thrust towards aggressive action against the Taliban. Rather than playing a constructive role and preparing the public for a difficult and costly war, he did the opposite: he railed against the government and defended the insurgent group.
His rhetoric was not without cost. Given his background as a popular cricketer and a well-known philanthropist, alongside his blunt and uncompromising rhetoric against the ruling elite of Pakistan, Imran Khan was perhaps the most popular figure in Pakistan at the time. He was also remarkably free of responsibility. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), had boycotted the 2008 elections, which meant that it had no presence in parliament. Imran Khan’s cosy relationship with the military, meanwhile, would only come five years later.
In a sense, then, the war was someone else’s problem. He had as much formal power as an internet troll – and often played the part. The ratings-hungry media eagerly granted the country’s most telegenic personality hours of coverage, and his diatribes did not disappoint. More than anyone else, he shaped the contours of the Taliban debate in Pakistan, which revolved around three questions. First, why was the TTP attacking Pakistanis? Second, was the state’s national interest served by negotiating or fighting the TTP? Third, was the US alliance a help or hindrance in defeating the TTP? Only the last of these was genuinely difficult to answer, but as it happened, each assumed a controversial and polarising colour.
While the elected government and even the military favoured a more assertive approach, realising the mortal threat the TTP posed to Pakistan, Khan hemmed and hawed. He made excuses for the Taliban; they were only incensed by foreign occupation, he claimed and had no ideological agenda. The real problem, he thundered, was not the Taliban but the government itself. He accused it and its predecessors of fighting “America’s war” and claimed military operations against the group were only motivated by an avaricious thirst for dollars. In so doing, he ensured that espousing such a position was political poison, even if it was the correct one.
All the while, every week brought news of another Taliban attack. The TTP’s murder of Pakistanis was merciless and unrelenting. They bombed and shot them. They struck mosques and markets. They were daring enough to take on hard targets, such as army bases and airports, and shameless enough to take on soft ones, such as schools and shrines. They killed important people as well as the pitifully anonymous. They decapitated Pakistani police officers and soldiers and then uploaded videos of them to social media for the world to see.
Over a decade, the Taliban saw fit to end the lives of more than 50,000 Pakistanis. Eventually, the weight and sheer brutality of this sustained assault became too much to bear. By the middle of the 2010s, the state began to conduct a series of security operations against the group – no thanks to Khan, of course. Between a more aggressive military posture, improved efficacy of US drones, and the “fortunate” happenstance of an internationalised civil war in Syria, which pulled the centre of gravity for jihadists to west Asia, away from central and south Asia, Pakistan managed to turn the tide on Taliban terrorism.
But the group was never completely vanquished. Now, with the wind of the Afghan Taliban’s victory in its sails, a success that Islamabad ironically played an important role in, the TTP is back in spades. To deal with its violence, Khan once again favours a soft hand; in this regard, little seems to have changed. The difference, of course, is that this time he is in power.
At one level, the Taliban’s resurgence is a thorough repudiation of Khan’s theory of terrorism in Pakistan. Khan claimed that the Taliban were motivated by the presence of US forces in Afghanistan and by the US-Pakistan alliance, not by ideology. But the US departed Afghanistan earlier this year. As for the erstwhile partnership with Washington, Khan – still waiting for a phone call from President Joe Biden – will be more aware than most that it lies in tatters.
And yet Taliban violence continues unabated, the group responsible for almost a 100 terrorist attacks in 2021 alone, a figure the prime minister shockingly dismissed as a mere “spate”. Even taken on its own terms – and let us not mince words, he was and continues to be nonsensical on the topic of terrorism – Khan’s theory has been falsified.
More important than I-told-you-so’s, however, is the fact that the plan of action Khan is discussing will not work. Indeed, it never has: Pakistan has previously negotiated at least a half dozen “peace deals” with the TTP. Every single one failed. The Taliban are a maximalist organisation that, unlike many other insurgent groups, are not satisfied with a slice – they must have the whole loaf. Some secessionist movements, for instance, happily take deals for autonomy, as opposed to their stated goal of independence. Negotiated accords can successfully pacify some insurgencies, just not this one.
The TTP’s desire is to overthrow, violently or otherwise, the Pakistani state and impose their interpretation of Sharia throughout the country. There is no offering short of this, no concession or act of generosity, that Islamabad will be able to buy TTP forbearance with. In fact, all a peace deal will do – all it has ever done, when it comes to the TTP – is allow it to regroup, reorganise, rearm, and bolster its capacity for death and destruction. And this is before one even considers that the most important groups that make up the TTP do not favour, and are not involved in, the ongoing talks. If the government manages to coax an assurance from the TTP for the cessation of violence, it will be a laughably worthless promise.
In truth, the visceral reaction from the Pakistani public to the news of the talks is only partly rooted in prognostications about their failure. There is an emotional angle too; a therapist would describe it as unresolved trauma. It is almost galling, nigh-on offensive, for Khan to announce these talks and assurances of forgiveness for the Taliban without any participation from parliament or discussion with the public. Given his personal history on the question, it justifiably rubs many the wrong way.
After all, Khan was not just the bystander that failed to help put out the fire. Rather, he dissuaded firefighters from entering the building and, while the fire continued to rage, preached for understanding for the arsonist. Now, years later, he informs the building’s surviving residents that, without their input, the arsonist is being allowed to sign a new lease – after all, the fire was no big deal in the first place.
Khan being so blasé about the Taliban’s record exacerbates the collective post-traumatic stress disorder Pakistanis suffer from. His being so credulous about the Taliban’s intentions worsens the security threats those same Pakistanis face. In coming to power in 2018, Khan was fortunate to sidestep the worst of the war, fought and won during the tenure of his two hated rivals, the PPP and PML-N. For his own sake if no one else’s, he should tread carefully.