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While the Pakistani public at large remains consumed with the sky-rocketing inflation and the civilian government grapples with a floundering economy and strict IMF conditions, the country’s powerful army is pushing for a negotiated settlement with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (aka TTP or Pakistani Taliban).
The negotiations between the TTP leadership based in Afghanistan and the Pakistani army officials that have been going on at least since last fall, gained new momentum over the past several weeks. A group of individuals from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province including the districts consisting of the former Federally Administrated Tribal areas (FATA) that were merged with that federating unit, recently visited Kabul, and held talks with the TTP leadership including its current chief Noor Wali Mehsud, and other top commanders Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and Umar Khalid Khorasani.
The TTP’s fraternal twins, the Afghan Taliban not only acted as the go-between but their acting Prime Minister Hasan Akhund, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and intelligence chief Muhammad Wasiq attended the parleys, ostensibly as facilitators.
Both sides claimed progress after the talks, and the TTP has apparently extended the ceasefire indefinitely.
The 50-member Pakistani delegation was dubbed as a jirga i.e., traditional tribal assembly of elders but it was authorised neither by the Pashtun tribes nor the government of Pakistan. The members were handpicked by the controversial former Director General of Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate Lt. General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry, who is currently commanding the army’s XI Corps headquartered at Peshawar. He even arranged for the entourage to travel to Kabul in a military C-130 aircraft.
Prior to that, General Faiz, as he is commonly known, had himself flown to Kabul and held direct talks with the TTP leaders.
Some of the delegation members have confirmed on record that the constitution and launch of their so-called jirga was wholly-owned project of the Pakistan army. They have confirmed that they participated in their individual capacity and were “authorised” by General Faiz, who met with them prior to their departure, to work out a peace deal with the TTP since they “all come from the same region and ethno-cultural background”.
As the reckless venture started drawing criticism, mostly from the Pashtun nationalist political leaders, the Federal Minister for Information belatedly claimed that it was commissioned by the civilian administration under the constitution. It is ironic that the civilians were forced to take flak for the army, and that too on such flimsy grounds.
Firstly, the de facto relations notwithstanding, Pakistan still does not officially recognise the Afghan Taliban regime in Kabul that hosted the talks.
Secondly, for a sitting Corps commander to run talks with a proscribed terrorist group on foreign territory is unheard of even in the dirty games that Pakistan army has played in Afghanistan. It is certainly beyond a corps commander’s professional remit and holds no constitutional or even administrative water. There were instances during General Pervez Musharraf’s army regime, where the Corps Commander Peshawar negotiated with the TTP inside Pakistan, but this would be the first instance where one has conducted such talks inside Afghanistan.
Thirdly, the elected parliamentarians from the North and South Waziristan, the ex-FATA districts that bore the brunt of both the TTP atrocities and the army operations, were completely kept out of the loop and the delegation. It finally forced the country’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who in all likelihood was kept in the dark as well, to publicly state that all decisions on dealing with the terrorists must be taken by the parliament. The FM, who is also the chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), went on serve a show-cause notice to a federal minister from his party who was part of the mission, showing that the information minister was outright lying to give legitimacy to a patently illegal enterprise post ipso facto.
It is dumbfounding that a country that has lost over 70,000 citizens, including the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, to the TTP’s relentless terror, would be kept in dark by the army over negotiations with that group.
The Pakistani Taliban’s almost two-decade long terrorism reached every corner of the country but predominantly ravaged the Pashtun-inhabited areas. A vast majority of the terror casualties were ethnic Pashtuns and religious minorities.
The Pashtuns of the ex-FATA and the KP’s Malakand division faced a triple whammy when they were first tormented by the Taliban, then displaced internally when the military eventually launched operations against the terrorists and in the process destroyed the civilian homes and businesses as well.
The TTP, however, has attacked not just the civilians but also the army’s General Headquarters, air force and naval bases, country’s largest ordnance factory and aeronautical complex, airports, and massacred nearly 150 students and teachers at an army-run boys’ school. It was in the aftermath of that school attack that the country’s political and military leadership finally came together and formulated what was called the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism.
A core pledge of the NAP was that no armed organisation would be allowed to operate in the country. The army is clearly reneging on that commitment and appears to be using the civilian government and coopted Pashtun leaders to sanctify a dirty deal that it seems to have already cut with the Taliban.
While the TTP declaring ceasefire is being trumpeted as major success by the army’s surrogates in the media, what the army is conceding is being kept under wraps. These army-approved spokespersons are touting that just like the US agreement with the Afghan Taliban, the deal with the TTP will end an endless war. Never mind that the US-Taliban agreement in Doha paved the way for complete elimination of the Afghan Republic and its state structures. The TTP’s demands, are similarly ominous and could lead to the weakening, if not elimination, of the state structures in the areas that it is allowed to return to. It is demanding imposition of sharia laws in the Malakand division and ex-FATA districts, a reversal of the FATA merger with the KP province, the right to retain arms, release of its prisoners and reparations for losses of life and property its cadres have incurred over the years.
The army has already released a couple of top TTP commanders on death row, including its infamous former spokesman Muslim Khan who used to call the media and take responsibility for every atrocity their vile band committed. They were handed over to the Haqqani faction of the Afghan Taliban at the Afghanistan’s embassy in Islamabad and later moved to an undisclosed location in that country.
Why is the Pakistan army so keen to cut a deal with the TTP that it is willing to release scores of what it had once called “jet black terrorists”, who are sure to return to the battlefield without a pause? The simple answer is that it can’t fight them, at least not now. With economy in shambles thanks to the army’s hybrid regime project and the prevailing political instability courtesy its now-ousted central character Imran Khan, Pakistanis state is weak and vulnerable. Pakistan army also lacks the largesse and the advanced technical intelligence that the US had provided it during several previous operations against the TTP.
The TTP, on the other hand, has regrouped and reorganised, and is ideologically rejuvenated thanks to the Afghan Taliban’s victory over the US and Kabul government. The TTP under Noor Wali Mehsud reabsorbed several splinter groups and defectors, and with swollen ranks and operational freedom it enjoyed in Afghanistan, the group ramped up its attacks inside Pakistan. Unlike the past large-scale indiscriminate terror attacks against the general population, the TTP has been mainly targeting the security forces including army and certain civilians, mostly in the ex-FATA districts.
For years, Pakistan army had portrayed the TTP as a puppet of the US-backed Afghan governments and the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). But the fact of the matter is that the TTP has been joined at the hip, ideologically and logistically, with the Afghan Taliban, and especially its Haqqani faction. While several top leaders and every single one of the TTP chiefs killed so far had been taken out by the US drones, after coming to power, the Afghan Taliban released hundreds of TTP prisoners who had been arrested by the fallen Kabul government, including TTP senior leaders like founding deputy emir Maulvi Faqir Muhammad.
The current TTP emir renewed allegiance to the Afghan Taliban after they took over Kabul.
Pakistan army had disingenuously peddled the myth that the Afghan Taliban would not only contain the TTP but deliver it to Pakistan. But when rubber met the road, the Afghan Taliban refused to act against their brothers-in-arms, for assorted reasons, of which an ideological affinity is the foremost. Also, the Taliban regime has other battles to fight, including against the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIK).
But even if the Taliban emirate wanted to crackdown on the TTP it risks not just a fight back from the group but also resistance from within its own ranks and a potential ideological challenge from the ISIK for betraying the jihadist cause. The Pakistan army became increasingly impatient with the TTP operating from the Afghan soil and had also launched a few attacks inside Afghanistan, leading to a muffled protest from the emirate which came under internal pressure for being seen as stooges of Pakistan army unable to stand up to it. The emirate, however, also relies heavily on Pakistan army, which effectively is its sole international patron, and, therefore, could not be alienated outright.
The talks essentially buy the Afghan Taliban, the TTP and the Pakistan army some time. But for how long and at what cost?
In dealing with the TTP, past is the prologue. The Pakistan army has itself negotiated and signed – or forced the civilian governments to do so – over a dozen agreements with the TTP. Each one of those deals was in tatters within months, if not days, with the TTP reneging on its promises, the state conceding more space to the terrorists, and the general population ultimately bearing the brunt of it all. In most of those cases, the army allowed the Taliban who had ostensibly surrendered, to organise as the so-called peace committees and keep their weapons. In case of Malakand, the civilian government was even pushed to concede to Taliban an enforcement of sharia regulations.
The TTP used the agreements to increase its stature, consolidate its hold, fill the power vacuum created by abdication of the state and weakening of the old tribal hierarchy, and eventually unleashed another wave of terror. The Taliban even massacred many tribal elders who had helped negotiate some of those deals, not unlike the bunch that signed up as General Faiz’s emissaries. There is nothing that says that the present round of talks and Taliban appeasement would end any differently.
The Pakistan army’s media surrogates point out that the TTP’s raison d’etre was the American presence in the region and irritants such as drone attacks, and with those gone, peace must be given a chance. The TTP, however, has been very clear and consistent about why it is waging a bloody terror campaign against Pakistan. A former TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud was once asked by the BBC whether the US withdrawal from the region would have any impact on their movement. Mehsud had responded:
“There will be no impact of the American withdrawal on the TTP, because friendship with America is only one of the two reasons we have to conduct jihad against Pakistan. The other reason is that Pakistan’s system is un-Islamic, and we want that it should be replaced with the Islamic system. This demand and this desire will continue even after the American withdrawal.”
Nothing has changed in the TTP thinking since. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the incumbent TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud had bluntly told the CNN that their war is against the Pakistani state and they seek imposition of sharia and independence of the border regions (ex-FATA).
While the TTP’s motives and tactics are rather clear, the Pakistan army calculus is rather murky. That not a single Pashtun nationalist leader was included in the delegation(s) sent to Kabul raises serious concerns not just about the army’s tactics but its motives. Ali Wazir, the outspoken member of the National Assembly from South Waziristan is in prison for almost two years at the behest of none other than the Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, who wants to make an example out of him for making a speech against the army’s excesses in his region.
But the parliamentarian from North Waziristan, Mohsin Dawar – a cool-headed lawyer – was also barred from the group. It is mind-boggling that the army meticulously excluded law-abiding constitutionalists from an ostensible peace process that is bound to impact their region but has sworn terrorists. Fair is foul, foul is fair! But a handpicked member of the delegation and former parliamentarian from the PPP, Akhundzada Chattan hinted at the foul play. He said in an interview upon his return that it seemed as if someone else was using the TTP’s shoulder to fire at the merger of ex-FATA with the KP province.
Other Pashtun politicians like the former Senator Afrasiab Khattak have charged that through its cloak-and-dagger games the army seeks to turn the Pashtun regions to the east of Durand Line into a Taliban sanctuary yet again. Pakistan army has used Islamism for decades to counter Pashtun nationalism and Afghan irredentism. The army’s perception of the threat from the Pashtun nationalists like Wazir and Dawar is delusional and warped. Could it get more perverse than caging the constitutionalists and letting the terrorists loose?
But in its quest for the so-called strategic depth in Afghanistan, Pakistan army has kept providing reverse strategic depth to its jihadist proxies. An ideological milieu and jihadist infrastructure were created in Pakistan to groom and launch these jihadists, which the army always thought it could control and harness. But many of them did boomerang back on to the army itself. The TTP rehabilitation in the ex-FATA could buttress the Afghan Taliban – and the Haqqani faction in particular – against some of the military challenges coming their way. Whatever the veracity of these claims by the Pashtun nationalists, it is abundantly clear that by default the net result of the army’s manoeuvrings would be yet another round of turmoil and terror in the Pashtun regions of Pakistan.
The Taliban surrendering their weapons and accepting the constitution could theoretically be the ultimate result if – a huge if at that – the negotiations are successful. The Taliban agreeing to a set of conditions, accepting the state’s writ, disarming, and decommissioning is a pipedream. What does the TTP stand to gain by conceding is better known to the army. The TTP would certainly find another pretext to continue its violent campaign.
The TTP’s negotiations ruse has always ended in more bloodshed and there is little reason to believe it would be different this time. A public and parliamentary debate and oversight of these opaque negotiations are definitely in order. Unfortunately, the incumbent coalition government remains beholden to the army for engineering Imran Khan’s ouster and continues to abdicate internal and foreign affairs to the junta. The army-imposed deal with the TTP spells an unmitigated disaster, especially for the Pashtuns.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.