Pakistan-TTP talks: Back to the future?

Pakistan-TTP talks: Back to the future?

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Pakistan has resumed the on-off peace talks with the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to end the 14 year conflict. As a confidence building measure, TTP announced a 10-day ceasefire on Eid-ul-Fitr, which has been extended until May 30. In return, Pakistan has released 30 TTP prisoners, including handing over two high profile militants, Muslim Khan and Mehmood Khan to the Taliban, to carry the negotiations forward. The Taliban interim regime’s Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and the Intelligence Chief Abdul Haq Wasiq are mediating the Pakistan-TTP talks. Last November, the negotiations broke down when TTP unilaterally ended the one-month truce and resumed its attacks. The larger question is: what is different about Pakistan-TTP talks this time around and will the outcome be any different? 

Pakistan’s on-off talks with TTP since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is part of the continuum to contain the cross-border militant threat through a combination of force and negotiations. It is a protracted conflict with cross-cutting ethnic, ideological and regional dimensions without easy and straightforward solutions, necessitating a combination of hard and soft approaches. By containing the threat through negotiations, the underlying motive is to thin out TTP by rehabilitating the reconcilable elements, mostly the militant families, in their native areas. Subsequently, divide the hardcore groups to neutralize them using force. However, the presence of various TTP-linked militant groups in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s protection complicates the second prong of this strategy, i.e., neutralization through the application of force after isolation and division, creating a deadlock which reinforces cycles of violence as witnessed in March and April. Thus, beyond the repatriation of militants’ families not involved in violence, the prospects of the current phase of peace talks are bleak. 

It bears mention that the current phase of the Pakistan-TTP talks was followed by weeks of cross-border violence from the latter, resulting in retaliatory airstrikes by the former in Afghanistan. Following the Pakistan Air Force’s retaliatory airstrikes, which resulted in Pak-Afghan diplomatic tensions, Islamabad urged the Taliban regime to take decisive action against TTP. Simultaneously, the Pakistan Army also gave an ultimatum to the Mehsud tribe to evacuate the area in South Waziristan tribal district to pave the way for a military operation. This resulted in the formation of a 32-member Mehsud jirga which met with the TTP leadership in Afghanistan to broker a ceasefire between the militant group and Pakistan. Separately, a 19-member jirga of tribes from Malakand Division also met the TTP leadership. The parleys of Pashtun tribal elders from Pakistan and the Taliban interim regime’s pressure softened the TTP to re-engage in talks with Pakistan.

A careful look at TTP’s negotiation pattern with Pakistan reveals that the militant group is using the template of Taliban’s talk with the US in Qatar. 

Abdul Basit Khan

On May 16, a Pakistani delegation led by the Peshawar Corps Commander Lt. General Faiz Hameed held two days of secret negotiations with the TTP leadership in Kabul. The Pakistani negotiation team also included representatives from the Military Intelligence and the Inter Services Intelligence. Meanwhile, the TTP’s negotiation team led by Qazi Muhamamd Amir comprised Molvi Faqir Mohammad, Dr Muhammad, Mufti Abu Huraira, Mufti Asif and Hilal Ghazi. Though TTP and the Taliban regime have officially acknowledged talks, Pakistan’s political and military leadership is tight-lipped on this issue. 

A careful look at TTP’s negotiation pattern with Pakistan reveals that the militant group is using the template of Taliban’s talk with the US in Qatar. TTP is holding talks with the Pakistani team outside of Pakistan, that is Afghanistan. Likewise, just like the Taliban, it demanded release of high-profile prisoners as a pre-condition to form a negotiation team for formal peace talks. In November, TTP unilaterally discontinued talks by ending the one-month ceasefire and resumed its attacks after Pakistan refused to release Muslim Khan and Mehmood Khan. The Taliban did the same when Kabul refused to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners including high-profile figures like Anas Haqqani and increased their attacks on the Afghan security forces. The escalating violence forced Kabul to release more prisoners before resuming talks with Kabul. TTP did the same, it discontinued talks in November and increased both the intensity and frequency of its attacks, forcing Pakistan to release 30 prisoners including Muslim Khan and Mehmood Khan. 

Presently, over and above asking for releasing its prisoners, TTP is also demanding amnesty and financial compensation for repatriated families. Furthermore, TTP wants reversal of the ex-FATA region’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, withdrawal of the Pakistani security forces from the area and implementation of Nizam-e-Adl Regulation Act as well as an end to search and military operations in North and South Waziristan tribal districts.  Meanwhile, in the short term, Pakistan wants TTP militants to stop cross-border attacks, extend the ceasefire and not to disrupt Pak-Afghan fencing. In the longer run, Pakistan expects TTP to lay down arms, renounce violence, surrender to the Pakistani constitution and give assurances to live like normal citizens. At the same time, for the hardcore TTP militants, the Pakistani negotiation team has clarified that there will be no blanket amnesty. Rather, the hardcore militants will have to go through the country’s legal process as well as rehabilitation before repatriation in the society, provided a final deal is reached between the two sides.   

So far, the tactical ceasefire is holding, and the talks are continuing. Hence, it will be too early and premature to jump to any conclusion. However, if the past is any guide, the irreconcilable positions from both sides leave very little room for a long-term settlement. Given that, it is safe to assume that Pakistan is containing the conflict and trying to manage it through talks as the resolution mechanisms are absent or unviable at this juncture. Out of the box thinking is needed to come to grips with the TTP challenge in a changing geopolitical environment.

– The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Twitter @basitresearcher. 

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