Pakistan and the Taliban: To talk or fight?

Announcing a new commission to oversee Taliban talks surprised many – not least those who were named as commissioners.

Muhammad Rasheed, Haseeb and Usman's father, does not hold out much hope for talks [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Muhammad Rasheed, Haseeb and Usman's father, does not hold out much hope for talks [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Recovering from serious injuries to his legs and chest, 14-year-old Haseeb Ahmed’s voice is, nonetheless, almost cheerful, as he recounts his close brush with death on January 20, in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.

“We were about to cross the road, and were very close to our school, when the explosion happened,” he told Al Jazeera, a little over a week after a bomb blast in the city’s RA Bazaar area ostensibly targeted an army checkpoint.

“We had no idea what had happened,” he said. “There was smoke everywhere, and it blinded me. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.”

We had no idea what had happened. There was smoke everywhere, and it blinded me. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.

- Haseeb Ahmed, 14, victim of a bomb blast

Ahmed is one of the tens of thousands of Pakistanis to be injured in the violence that has gripped the country since the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an armed anti-state group that has targeted civilians and security forces alike, was formed in 2007.

His brother, Usman, was less fortunate. The 12-year-old was killed in the blast, along with at least 12 others. And it is when speaking of Usman’s death that Haseeb’s voice becomes laced with anger.

“My brother was dead. I was so angry. I want to tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves, for killing innocents,” he said. “This is not in Islam. God will curse them for this.”

The TTP took responsibility for the attack, which took place only about a kilometre from the Pakistani Army’s headquarters. Six soldiers were killed in the blast – just a handful of the more than 90 civilians and security forces to have lost their lives in January 2014 alone. Last year, more than 5,300 people were killed in such violence, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

In the week leading up to a widely anticipated counterterrorism policy speech from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the TTP had claimed responsibility for attacks on the military and civilians in Bannu, Rawalpindi and elsewhere – prompting retaliatory airstrikes by Pakistan’s military on TTP bases in the North Waziristan tribal area, which serves as the group’s headquarters.

Surprise announcement

In his first appearance before parliament in more than six months, Sharif was expected to, for the first time, formally outline his government’s counterterrorism strategy in dealing with the threat posed by the TTP.

Sharif spoke of how the TTP had “sown chaos”, and “taken responsibility with pride” for attacks on a Peshawar church and a bazaar in September, for killing an Army Major-General in September, for killing polio vaccination workers and for targeting the news media in a renewed campaign.

“We cannot bear this situation anymore. The killing of innocent citizens is not acceptable at any level,” he said.

Outlining the government’s “clear position and plan of action”, Sharif announced the formation of a four-member committee of non-parliamentarians whose job will be to facilitate negotiations with the Taliban – his party’s long-held public stance on ending the conflict with the TTP.

The move took many by surprise. One Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) policy maker who has worked on security issues told Al Jazeera before the address that the prime minister was about to order a massive military operation in North Waziristan – going so far as to say “it has already begun”.

We will try and create the right conditions for the talks, will try and remove some misgivings and maybe suggest some confidence building measures. Maybe the first such measure could be a ceasefire.

- Rahimullah Yousafzai, nominated peace talks committee member

None were perhaps more surprised than the members of the committee themselves – none of them elected representatives and, as such, with limited powers under the constitution. Rahimullah Yousufzai, a veteran journalist, told Al Jazeera that he had only been invited to join the committee that morning in a phone call from Sharif, and that he was not told what the government’s expectations were or what the committee’s mandate was.

“We perhaps will be facilitators for the talks. We will try and create the right conditions for the talks, will try and remove some misgivings and maybe suggest some confidence building measures. Maybe the first such measure could be a ceasefire,” he said, referring to Sharif’s apparent pre-condition that “dialogue and terrorism cannot go together”.

The only person more surprised than Yousufzai may have been Rustom Shah Mohmand, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and a senior diplomat, who had no idea that he was on the committee until the prime minister announced his name in parliament.

So, in that apparent confusion, and amid continuing attacks on the state by the TTP, what can these talks achieve?

“The government’s negotiating position is not clear. They have not made it clear whether this effort is happening within the ambit of the constitution as a precondition for talks,” says Imtiaz Gul, the director of the Islamabad-based Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).

Expected failure?

The TTP has since reiterated its core demand of the enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law, “whether through peace or war”.

Without talks occurring within the basic framework of Pakistan’s constitution, Gul argues, they are doomed to fail, as “there will be no binding mechanisms placed on them other than the understandings [the TTP] reaches with the government”.

Moreover, this constant return to the negotiating table – a tactic that Sharif’s government has espoused since it was elected seven months ago, and which has so far resulted in no formal talks – weakens the state’s position, Gul says. At least 1,561 civilian lives have been lost in the interim – most in attacks claimed by the TTP or its allies.

“The government has been begging them for talks, and… this basically emboldens the terrorists to assert themselves. The government has failed to assert its monopoly over the use of force, and has basically abdicated that when they beg the TTP to come and talk.”

Pakistan PM pushes for talks with Taliban

Ejaz Haider, an Islamabad-based security analyst, agreed that the negotiating positions of the government and the TTP appear to be “not reconcilable”, with the state demanding that the TTP respect the constitution and the TTP expecting the release of all prisoners held by the state – as well as a complete security withdrawal from the tribal areas under its influence.

Haider argues that the PML-N-led government has been trapped by its own campaign promises – and those of its rival, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – and that now it is being forced to establish in concrete terms whether or not serious negotiations can work.

The strategy, he says, is to build consensus for military action through the expected failure of these talks.

“I agree with this [fresh offer of peace talks], even as I am highly sceptical of the outcome, because this move was important to the extent of establishing certain things, which is that we have offered talks, but if the other side offers resistance, then you create space for the use of force or the threat of use of force,” he told Al Jazeera.

Moreover, he argues, the talks give the government the opportunity to reconcile with less hardline wings of the TTP, which has seen questions raised about the ability of its central leadership to assert control over its factions since the appointment of its new chief, Maulana Fazlullah, in November.

Measures of success

“Public buy-in”, Haider asserts, is essential for any military operation to be successful. Moreover, the government will need to back up any military action with development projects and legal reforms in the tribal areas which the TTP dominates, in order to degrade its ability to recruit.

In addition, it will have to build its counterterrorism ability in urban centres.




“The operational capacity of the TTP and its affiliates can be largely degraded, but that degradation in and of itself does not mean that the kind of recruits that they can get in the urban centres will also disappear… The country is replete with soft targets, and all you have to do is take out two or three in the course of a week or so, and it presents the state as incapable of [protecting citizens].”

All of this is, of course, being viewed with interest by the United States, which has long urged the Pakistani government to launch an indiscriminate operation in North Waziristan, targeting both the TTP and other groups, such as the Haqqani network, that are active in the conflict against US forces in Afghanistan.

Daniel Markey, senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that there is “a firm hope” in Washington that this latest offer of talks is “a tactic by PM Sharif to unify Pakistan when it is shown that talks are either not productive or when they fail, to use that unity [to gather public support for a military operation]”.

The greater concern for Washington, Markey argues, is the insularity with which Nawaz Sharif has been making policy.

On the day that the prime minister made his speech in parliament, for example, several PML-N parliamentarians had made rousing speeches espousing the use of military force against the TTP, apparently convinced that this was what their leader was due to announce. One central leader of the party, Rana Sanaullah, went as far as to announce the government was “on a war footing to smash the Taliban” – the day before Sharif made his speech to the contrary.

“It’s a question about Nawaz Sharif’s leadership style, and the incredibly small number of people who seem to be really in the know about this issue and just about everything else, and the sense that that kind of personality-driven, very insular, way of running Pakistan is leading to a kind of… stalemating and confusing things, rather than creating positive momentum, whether on security, governance or economic reform,” said Markey.

Meanwhile, across Pakistan, the bodies keep piling up. Minutes before Sharif called for talks, four security officers were killed in suicide and shooting attacks in the southern city of Karachi. Shahidullah Shahid, the TTP’s spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that his group took responsibility for those attacks, but that it would also be forming a committee of its own to discuss Sharif’s proposal.

“The dialogue will not work. Let Allah help these people and bring peace to this country,” said Muhammad Rasheed, Haseeb and Usman’s 50-year-old father. “The government is talking, but the Taliban isn’t. They won’t abandon their mission.

“These people, they are not human,” he said. “They are barbarians.”

The names of some interviewees have been changed, as they spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal attacks by the TTP.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera

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