Pakistan’s move to talk to militant group is setback in battle against terrorism
Pakistan’s move to initiate peace talks with a banned militant group responsible for killing thousands of people raises questions about the country’s counter terrorism policy. The offer for amnesty to the elements of Pakistani Taliban movement known as the TTP came as the terrorist outfit has intensified attacks on Pakistani security forces in the former tribal region. Scores of soldiers have been killed over the past few months in the clashes with the increasingly emboldened militants operating from their sanctuaries across the border.
Prime minister Imran Khan in an interview with a foreign TV channel last week said that his government was in talks with some factions of the proscribed outfit. He said the negotiations were part of the reconciliation process and that those who are willing to lay down arms would be pardoned. He also disclosed that the Afghan Taliban authorities are facilitating the talks.
Earlier the president and the foreign minister had also offered amnesty to the terror group indicating a marked shift in the government’s strategy to deal with terrorism and religious extremism that present an existential threat to the country. Days before the amnesty offer, the National Action Plan apex committee comprising senior civil and military officials had called for stepping up efforts to deal with the rising terrorist threat.
Many doubt that the policy of appeasement that has not worked in the past could deliver peace now. There has not been any indication that the militants are willing to renounce violence and surrender arms. A TTP spokesman rejected cease-fire and vowed to continue what it described as a war against the Pakistani state.
The government’s amnesty offer is seen as a sign of weakness and seems to have further emboldened the militants. Hours after the prime minister’s statement, four Pakistani soldiers were killed in clashes with the terrorists in Waziristan region, which has become the main center of militant activities.
Formed in December 2007, the TTP soon emerged as the most powerful militant group in Pakistan’s former tribal regions. Before the formation of the group with the specific agenda of establishing its obscurantist version of Islamic rule most of its leaders were fighting across the border along the Afghan Taliban against American forces. The group was also connected with Al Qaeda operating in the border regions.
The government’s amnesty offer is seen as a sign of weakness and seems to have further emboldened the militants.
Within a short period of time the TTP had swept across all the seven former tribal agencies and many parts of Khyber Pukhtunkhawa province. It also unleashed terror attacks across the country targeting both military and civilian installations. Thousands of people were killed in those terrorist attacks.
But military operations carried out since 2009 cleared the tribal region of the militants. The military action in North Waziristan in 2014 dealt the most serious blow to the TTP. The group disintegrated in several factions and most of its fighters fled to Afghanistan.
Some 4,000 to 5,000 Pakistani militants have been operating from across the Durand Line. The TTP also claimed responsibility of the massacre at the Peshawar Army Public School in December 2014 that killed more than 150 students and staff members. It was the most heinous terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history.
Some TTP factions fleeing military operations had joined the Middle East based Daesh which has been active in eastern Afghanistan. The split had affected the capability of the group to launch high-profile attacks in Pakistan. But the TTP has been revitalized in the past few months. Early this year, various TTP splinter groups reunited. Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban reportedly played an important role in getting the group together.
Pakistani intelligence agencies had long suspected that the group had been closely linked with the former Afghan intelligence agency and India’s RAW. After regrouping, the TTP stepped up its activities in North and South Waziristan targeting Pakistani security forces.
Curiously the TTP’s revival has coincided with the Afghan Taliban gaining ground next door. The two groups may have different priorities but their objectives are more or less the same. The link between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban movements could not be broken despite Pakistan’s efforts.
The government is using a false analogy of the US signing a peace agreement with the Afghan Taliban. It’s a completely different situation when it comes to talks with a banned terrorist outfit challenging the writ of the Pakistani state.
With no sign of it relenting, the peace negotiation with the terror group will be a serious setback to Pakistan’s battle against terrorism and violent extremism. The country has paid a huge cost for the peace deals that the state has made with militant groups in the past and it cannot afford to repeat the mistake.
*Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson Centre and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with Militant Islam and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ. His latest book ‘No-Win War’ was published this year.