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The Fate of Peace Talks Between Pakistan and TTP
A few months after Kabul’s dramatic fall, Pakistan became unsettled when it faced a flare-up of tensions with Afghan Taliban forces over the Durand Line’s fencing. The tense development raised the eyebrows of many in Pakistan, including those who were cheering the Taliban’s quick victory. The sudden surge of tensions deflated at least the self-constructed hopes of Pakistan that there would be a friendly frontier on the west. Keeping in mind Islamabad’s backing of the Taliban and its bitter engagement with Afghanistan’s previous rulers, the strain in ties was too early, disappointing, and troubling.
What’s now more troubling for Pakistan is the notable rebirth of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is currently getting the most out of the Taliban’s return to power mainly due to the absence of two factors: the former Afghan intelligence apparatus and US troops on the ground. Prior to the Taliban’s takeover, the Pakistani government repeatedly blamed the former Afghan governments for harboring anti-Pakistan militants. As a result, there was a widespread perception that with the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul, there would be a serious curb on anti-Pakistan militants. But things happened quite oppositely.
The UN monitoring team in its latest report has described TTP as a stand-alone force, having 3,000 to 4,000 armed fighters located along the east and south-east Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas such as Kunar, Nangarhar, and Paktika. The main body of TTP also includes 17 former splinter groups that rejoined the main TTP body, including Jamaat ul-Ahrar. The latest merger was done by the Ezzatullah Kheyali group, under the leadership of Ahmad Dawar from Datta Khel, North Waziristan on May 7, 2022.
The security landscape became increasingly tense and complicated once again when the TTP showcased its regained strength, which it had lost after Pakistan’s military operation Zarb-e-Azab, by kick-starting an unabated series of attacks on Pakistani troops along border areas in tribal districts. TTP alone in 2021 conducted 282 attacks on security forces, and in the first 4 months of 2022, it has already killed over 100 security personnel. After rounds of failed backdoor discussions with the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan decided to sit at the negotiating table with the TTP. The move to sit with those who showed no mercy in massacring Pakistanis suggested that those in charge of Afghan affairs in Pakistan were under immense pressure as the losses were proving to be costly. Despite commitments, the move also underlined Pakistan’s growing annoyance with the Taliban’s lack of enthusiasm to stop TTP from using the Afghan soil for terrorism. One who understands the jihadist ecosystem of Afghanistan knows that TTP and Afghan Taliban relations are so deeply rooted that even if the Taliban government decides to curb the TTP, the strong ties between their foot soldiers impede such action.
While the talks are underway with a cease-fire also in place, many in Pakistan are voicing concerns that talks are tantamount to giving legitimacy to the militant group, which could embolden it further. Parliamentarians have also sought warned that ceding to the militant group’s demand would render the federation weakened.
Just like the previous talks, which got scuttled, the latest round of talks are being facilitated by Haqqani Network chief Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is believed to be on good terms with the Pakistani security establishment, but also enjoying good ties with TTP’s top leadership.
Before delving into what are the prospects of the talks, it is of paramount importance to review the demands put forward by the parties involved in the talks. TTP demands include the reversal of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) merger, withdrawal of troops from tribal areas, implementation of Nizam-e-Adal (System of Justice) in Malakand Division, a region comprising Bajaur, Buner, Chitral, Dir, Malakand district, Shangla, Swat, dropping of cases against TTP’s members, resettlement of those who want to renounce fighting with permission to carry weapons, and release of prisoners. To give talks a positive direction, Pakistan released some of the top commanders including TTP Swat spokesperson Muslim Khan.
On the other hand, Pakistan wants TTP to lay down its arms, quit fighting completely and settle peacefully. In return, no further action would be taken against the group’s members. In short, TTP would be pardoned if it agrees to put a complete halt to its jihadist campaign.
It took several years for TTP to get back to the level of unity from where it lost its strength after breaking away into various factions in the aftermath of the contentious appointment of TTP’s Swat chapter leader Mullah Fazullah, also known as Mullah Radio, and negative press as a result of operation Zarb-e-Azab by the Pakistani military. TTP, a loosely integrated group of like-minded militants from across the tribal belt and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was traditionally led by the leader from the Mehsud tribe but Mullah Fazullah was from Swat and non-Mehsud. However, in 2018, Noor Wali Mehsud, a charismatic leader and author of the book entitled ‘Inqilab-e-Mehsud’ rose to the top echelon, helped the internal fissures to evaporate, and brought many jihadist groups quite successfully onto the same page regarding a shared single-focus agenda: jihad against the Pakistani state. This time, TTP decided not to attack civilians in order to project a soft image of itself after it received enormous hatred from common Pakistanis and even from Al-Qaeda members due to its overly violent campaign. Interestingly, this new leadership in its propaganda drive is also toying with the ethnic card by again echoing the grievances of Pashtuns, who suffered immensely in the military operations against the same TTP. It also called on the Baluch people to join the jihadist war against the state. These moves suggest that TTP also wants to remain relevant in Pakistan’s political discourse where it currently gets no space.
Keeping in view the efforts, energy, and dedication that Noor Wali Mehsud exerted to rejuvenate the TTP to pursue what was left unachieved, it seems too early and sanguine to expect too much from talks.
As the main body of TTP also includes 17 loosely integrated former splinter groups; any compromise, despite support for negotiations by hardliners such as Omar Khalid Khurasani, on its so-called jihad will inflict irreparable damage to the group’s recently hard-won unity. In this context, Noor Wali Mehsud might not make moves, even short of the dissolution of the group, that may prove self-destructive against the mere guarantees of peace by the state, which they have been blaming for not living up to its promises in the past, especially after 9/11.
Accordingly, the group is focused on a long-term campaign against the Pakistani state. In 2020, TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud announced that the TTP can only be victorious in Pakistan if it follows in the footsteps of the Afghan Taliban. The statement made one thing quite clear: TTP would prefer to carry on the fight rather than quit on the terms of a rival.
The historic account of peace talks also offers a sensible guide. The up and down history in which a militant group returns to violence on even the slightest pretext is not out of possibility. Such a pretext under current conditions could be an attack by the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP)—one of TTP’s rivals—or a regional state actor. It could even be an attack from militant groups operating independently in the tribal belt, including that of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, formerly a part of TTP.
One very significant factor is often missed, intentionally or not, from the debating circles and is not being given significant heed. It is the Afghan Taliban’s tactical priority. TTP provides Afghan Taliban with a battle-hardened fighting force as both fought alongside each other against Americans, the former Afghan National Army, and ISKP. Both take each other as brothers in faith. Hence, any move on the part of TTP that might deteriorate the group’s latest reconfiguration and result in ultimate dissolution might be resisted by Afghanistan’s new rulers, who realize the significance of the Pakistani Taliban as a bargaining chip in their future dealings with Pakistan.
Finally, it is not in the interest of TTP to forgo a hardline approach toward Pakistan's constitution and state's overall political and governance model. TTP derives its strength from the hardline approach. Noor Wali truly realizes this. TTPs’ Emir in his latest video circulated on telegram and Twitter can be heard as saying: “In the Jihad against Pakistan, I’ve lost my father, my brother, and multiple uncles and cousins, even if I am the least honorable one can be, I will still take their vengeance.”
Madiha Lodhi in his latest write-up has aptly enunciated the future outcome of talks she wrote: “In view of the TTP’s intransigent position on its main demands, an agreement is unlikely any time soon.”
It is quite reasonable to argue that the prospects of the talks appear too bleak given all the aforementioned factors. Nevertheless, the policymakers must realize that there is no alternative to peace, which is only possible if both sides, Pakistan and TTP, decide to engage in talks irrespective of respective ideological divergences.