On 8 November 2021, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) announced to have reached an agreement with the government to cease hostilities for one month, primarily for the month of November. Since then, Pakistan government has been on a mission to appease the TTP. On secretly negotiating with the TTP, the government has also been subjected to severe criticism by social activists. The government has been found defensive, claiming that it negotiated with the TTP within the ambit of the Constitution and the law of the land. Further, it did not negotiate directly with the TTP but through intermediaries. Pakistan thought that negotiating with the TTP is justified by the talks being part of the country’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Reportedly, the interim Afghan government facilitated the talks between the TTP and Pakistan. At least three rounds of talks took place: one in Kabul and two in Khost. As a goodwill gesture, the Pakistan government even released 100 TTP prisoners to reciprocate the ceasefire. Such was the level of happiness of the government. Ruefully, most freed TTP prisoners had not completed the mandatory six-month de-radicalization and rehabilitation process at the internment centres set up by the government. Currently, Pakistan yearns to turn the ceasefire into a permanent peace deal.
Pakistan’s acquiescence emboldened the resolve of the TTP. During the negotiations, the TTP made three demands: first, the TTP be permitted to open a political office in a third country; second, Pakistan’s government would reverse its earlier action of the merger of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; and third, Islamic Shariah would be enforced in Pakistan. Taken together, all the three demands indicate that the TTP was speaking from a position of strength.
Though the negotiating team of Pakistan’s government turned down the demands on one excuse or the other, the demands revealed the intent and purpose of the TTP. Demanding a political office in a third country is reminiscent of the practice of the Afghan Taliban who proclaimed themselves Kabul’s legitimate owners and sought a political office in Doha (Qatar) to negotiate with the US government. Not all examples are meant for following. The TTP is a marginalized militant organization in Pakistan and cannot claim the space it never owned.
The threat of militancy, whether it comes through the horrific incident of attacking the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014 or through bomb blasts in various cities, cannot afford the TTP any relevance. Nevertheless, by negotiating with the TTP in Kabul and Khost, Pakistan’s government recognized the semblance of the TTP’s political office in any country. By doing so, Pakistan’s government inadvertently reinforced the resolve of the TTP.
Confrontation with the TTP is not over. If Pakistan’s government negotiates with the TTP, other groups would also demand and expect similar rounds of negotiations and settlement
Similarly, the merger of the FATA with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is constitutionally protected. The FATA used to offer leeway to outlaws and militants alike to seek refuge, as this remained a lawless area outside the ambit of the law of the land. This kind of demand indicates the TTP’s bent of mind to have an anarchic unruly area under its sway. In the past, under the Af-Pak strategy of 2009, the US troops stationed in Afghanistan declared the FATA part of Afghanistan for operational purposes. The world censured Pakistan for tolerating a lawless region inside its border. The area remained condemned by the al-Qaeda hideouts exposed by drone strikes.
Since 31 May 2018 (through the 25th Constitutional Amendment), the FATA has been part of the province and the process is irrevocable. With that, the stranglehold of the TTP is gone and this point would remain a source of contention between the TTP and Pakistan. It is unlikely that the issue is resolved. The TTP may be thinking of deriving strength from the Afghan Taliban to stir unrest in the FATA in an attempt to reclaim the area, not only physically but also to revert it to its previous state of unruliness.
The TTP knows that sentiments of the Pakistanis can be exploited in the name of religion. Further, in Pakistan’s society, there are elements which are dissatisfied with the state of the enforcement of Islamic Shariah. These elements keep others confused and disgruntled, fanning discontent in society. By demanding the enforcement of Islamic Shariah interpreted in its own way, the TTP is provoking such elements. The issue may not die easily. Any turmoil based on enforcing Islamic injunctions, and even for anti-blasphemy movements, would raise the same religious sentiments.
In December 2021, the TTP announced the end of ceasefire on the excuse that Pakistan did not follow the commitments made in peace negotiations. The situation indicates that the conflict between Pakistan and the TTP would linger on.
Pakistan’s demand has been that the government of Afghan Taliban in Kabul should take punitive actions against the TTP. This is a tall order. The first preference of Afghan Taliban is to govern Afghanistan and not to fight against the TTP at the behest of Pakistan. It is difficult to expect that the Afghan Taliban would take any action against the TTP, though the Afghan Taliban have expressed their intent not to permit anyone to use Afghan soil against Pakistan. Second, the Afghan Taliban cannot take military action against the TTP even if the TTP is unwilling to reconcile with Pakistan.
Pakistan may be trying to break the TTP apart into factions for easy handling and settlement. Pakistan thinks that there are reconcilable elements within the TTP ranks who can be wooed to tranquility to wane the rank and file of the TTP.
Negotiating with the TTP has shaped an imbalance. Baloch nationalist groups have raised pressure on Pakistan to negotiate with them as well. Last month, a bomb blast in Anarkali Lahore was claimed by a Baloch militant group. Similarly, security forces are coming under attacks launched by Baloch dissident groups in Balochistan. Apparently, they are creating space to negotiate.
In short, confrontation with the TTP is not over. If Pakistan’s government negotiates with the TTP, other groups would also demand and expect similar rounds of negotiations and settlement.