Given the past records of the talks between the Pakistani state and the Pakistani Taliban, and the defiant mood of the TTP, the Sharif government’s bid to reach out to TTP appears doomed.
The All Party Conference (APC) convened by the ruling PML-N1 on September 9, put its seal of approval on dialogue with “our own people in the Tribal areas”, an euphemistic reference to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban. The APC resolution also endorsed dialogue with the “estranged Baloch elements”, making all necessary efforts to bring peace to Karachi, and “sustained engagement with the Afghan government and the people of Afghanistan. The focus, however, was dialogue with the TTP. Interestingly, the resolution expressed its concern about “continued non-implementation of important recommendations related to national security” in about half-a-dozen APC resolutions during 2008-2013 and decided to “give peace a chance”. It seemed as if the government of Pakistan and the political forces in general were making a desperate gamble hoping against hope that this might bring peace to the country at the internal level.
Immediately following the APC, there was some sign of hope that reconciliation with the TTP might succeed. The TTP spokesman welcomed the decision and expressed its willingness to participate in a “meaningful dialogue”, only after the government announced the framework for negotiations. The government evolved its framework for talks with the TTP2, but it did not make it public because it needed to bounce it off several stakeholders, i.e., the opposition political parties and the army. Reports of exchange of prisoners also appeared in the media suggesting a movement forward towards peace and dialogue.3 The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government’s decision to withdraw troops from the Malakand division (consisting of the districts of Upper and Lower Dir, Swat, Buner and Shangla) also indicated that the army was perhaps “willing to give peace a chance”.4
However, the TTP punctured this balloon of optimism soon and surprised everybody with its 10 preconditions on September 15, the very day they launched four attacks on the Pakistan security forces in different locations, one of which killed a Major General along with a Colonel and Lance Naik of the Pakistan army in an IED blast near a village called Gatkotal in Upper Dir. This act of aggression at a moment when there was so much emphasis on dialogue and negotiations, shocked the Pakistanis. The army chief of Pakistan was livid in his remarks: “it is understandable to give peace a chance through a political process, but no one should have any misgivings that we will let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms”. Responding to such reactions, the TTP explained that they did not regret these attacks because there was no ceasefire and they were in a state of war.5
The TTP preconditions on the other hand were far from reconciliatory. Among other things the TTP demanded blanket immunity for all mujahideen (including foreign ones) in Pakistan, release of about 4,500 “mujahideen and their helpers”, enforcement of Shariah and establishment of Shariah courts, withdrawal of the army from the tribal region, and last but not the least, bringing in Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, the Imam of Masjidul Haram, the mosque at Mecca, as a guarantor in the negotiations.6 The TTP also revealed that these were the basic conditions to start a dialogue, and its Shura had prepared 25 more conditions which would be presented during the course of the dialogue. The outrageous act of defiant attacks on the Pakistani security forces together with the unacceptable preconditions characterized the inflexible mindset of the TTP.
The analyses in the media, both English language and vernacular, are quite skeptical. There was a general argument that any such dialogue would be an “opaque dialogue” and the resolution drew a “picture of appeasement and cravenness” and extended “more olive branches” than “the country’s olive production can afford”.7 Even Kayani’s strong remarks that the army could not be “coerced” was regarded “as supine and defensive” as that of the civilian government and emblematic of the “public ambivalence and indecision by the army leadership”.8 Commentators argued that the government and the army had perhaps decided to “join the TTP rather than fight it”9 and had “formally handed over a strategic and morale-boosting advantage to the Al-Qaeda inspired” forces and were “inviting catastrophe”10 for Pakistan. Some of them suggested that TTP was a “slippery and deceitful adversary” the government should banish all thoughts of dialogue, because “complying with this request would be a non-starter since it would mean surrender, not negotiation”11 and if the past was “any guide, the present peace overtures to the Taliban [would] also end up in failure”.12
The state of Pakistan seems to be on a weak wicket which can be clearly discerned from its indecision to evolve a roadmap for talks after the APC. In clear contrast, the TTP is much clearer in its thinking. If the federal government now pushes for army withdrawal from the Malakand division in deference to the wishes of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government it will be tantamount to accepting TTP’s writ in the area. This is likely to reverse most of the good work attempted by the army since it launched its May 2009 operation Rah-e-Rast. The army seems to have made its stance clear that it will not back down in the face of coercion by the militants. In fact, before the APC meeting, a Corps Commanders meeting on September 4 had decided that counter-militancy operations would remain unaffected by talks.13
If one were to look at the present situation through the prism of Pakistani economy, there is no choice but to secure the internal space by lunging at dialogue with the internal enemy the state is confronted with. A large scale military operation at this juncture will only invite a backlash from the TTP which could further destabilize a faltering economy. The Sharif government is seeking a breather through dialogue to be able to find time and energy for reviving the economy and following through on a slew of belt-tightening measures implemented over the last three months. These overall fiscal austerity measures were largely dictated by the IMF in return for a $6.6 billion loan to repay the existing debt. In saddle, Sharif now knows that he has to take every possible measure to stabilize Pakistan economy. Interestingly, even if Sharif was opposing the previous government on the GST issue, he decided to hike the General Sales Tax from 16 to 17 percent and reduce energy subsidies across the board leading to a rise in electricity and fuel prices.
Another factor that could have forced Sharif to choose dialogue over armed action was his own vulnerability to TTP attacks. Reports surfaced in late July of a suicide bomb plot to kill Nawaz Sharif at his mansion in Raiwind by men belonging to an affiliate organization of the TTP. In August, another plot to kidnap Shahbaz Sharif was unearthed by intelligence officials. All this might have woken up the Sharifs to the reality that there was an imminent threat from the Pakistani Taliban to the family.14 Given the conservative leaning of the Sahrifs, which can be gleaned from their association with Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e-Taiba, it is interesting to find the TTP gunning for the Sharifs. In this case, perhaps Nawaz went through the process of generating an all-party consensus to convey a placatory message to the TTP that he was intent on conducting a sincere dialogue with them. The army has reluctantly fallen in line. The combined civil-military thinking, prior to the September 15 attacks on the security forces, was perhaps to allow TTP affiliates their run in the wild tribal badlands in return for assurances of security in the hinterland. But will it work now with the army seeking apparently to avenge it dead? Or is it the case that the army, equally petrified by the tribal madness, will allow the government to squeamishly work out a deal with the TTP, while they pull out seemingly under pressure from the civilian government?
The fact remains that one of the major fault lines that has come to light during the elaborate discussions in the Pakistani media on the possibility of peace between the TTP and the Pakistani state through dialogue has been the lack of common ground upon which the two sides could build consensus and, perhaps, peace. The TTP has been waging a jihad for the rule of Shariah, and establishing a truly Islamic state. The state of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, that the constitution of Pakistan stands for and the army of Pakistan seeks to defend, is anything but “Islamic” for the TTP. The spirit of democracy and rule of law that the state seeks to promote are at best heretical for it. In such a situation, it is well-nigh impossible to imagine that the state and TTP can ever work out a consensus on the basic structure of the Pakistani state.
But the bigger question now is will the TTP back out from its larger goal of establishing Shariah in Pakistan? Will TTP elements be content with their multiple mini-emirates dotting the tribal belt stretching from Waziristan to Mohmand and beyond till Chitral? Will it help if the state of Pakistan allows the Pakistani Taliban their own code and reconcile to its loss of authority over the terrain, much like the British, and use it as a buffer zone between rest of Pakistan and Afghanistan?
One must remember that the Nizam-e-Adl ordinance of April 2009 brought about by the PPP-led government and cleared by the so-called left-wing secular government headed by ANP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, to placate the Swat Taliban had failed to generate required amount of trust between the two. This ordinance is still in vogue. Therefore, any attempt on the part of the government to lure TTP through such legislation is not going to work. It appears that the TTP is not going to accept any such innovative solution. They are hell-bent on re-building Pakistan after their own model of Islam.
Another option that Pakistani government and establishment might try is the policy of diversion. In the past, especially after Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan had adopted such a tactic with remarkable success. The mujahideen returning from Afghanistan were suitably re-employed in jihad in Kashmir. Will Pakistan be able to divert the attention of the TTP now towards external forces in Afghanistan and India? Now that the TTP is ascendant, will it offer itself as a handmaiden of the Pakistan agencies and reconcile to a subsidiary role in such state-sponsored jihad?
If past is any indicator, the only ostensible effect of the nine rounds of negotiations between the government and the militants in the tribal belt, from Shakai agreement of 2004 till Nizam-e-Adl of 2009, has been a marked escalation in violence and the intensification of hostility between the state and the TTP. There are around 42 organisations within the TTP and they are united in their hatred of the Pakistan army, as can be seen from the literature they produce from time to time. Any group within TTP seen to be toeing a softer line on Pakistan military and government is likely to be isolated and cornered. Moreover, the fragmented nature of the organisation will allow the TTP to credibly palm off responsibility for violence during negotiations on rogue groups unobligated to the central leadership, thereby allowing for a “double game” where violence continues unabated in lockstep with talks, leading to the failure of the desperate gamble that the Sharif government is making.
Or else, if the army decides to go the whole hog and try to clear up the mess in the tribal borderlands, it is almost certain that it will lead to a virtual civil war given the dent of the TTP all over Pakistan. Either way, Pakistan is in for trouble in the coming days. The militants that the establishment had nurtured over the years for battlefields abroad have come home to confront it. Talks or no talks, the future of internal security situation looks bleak for Pakistan.