After months of arguments, the government has once again offered to hold peace talks with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the banned group has responded positively. Could this mark the end of the years’-old standoff between the TTP and Pakistan’s Security Forces? The facts point to the contrary.
This is not the first time dialogue has been initiated with the Pakistani Taliban. The most appropriate example of a political settlement with extremist fighter groups came with the Nizam e Adl regulation in 2009. The regulation offered to implement Islamic Law (Sharia) in the volatile Malakand District. The aim of the regulation was to formulate a ceasefire agreement between Pakistan’s Army and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM).
The interesting fact about TNSM was that it was a banned group that later joined forces with TTP. The regulation was moderated by Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a widely respected religious figure in Swat. The TNSM was led by his son-in-law Mullah Fazlullah, aka the notorious Mullah Radio who is the current TTP chief.
So how does the government plan to bring peace through dialogue when a hardcore religious figure and the Pakistani army are already present in the mix?
A force to be reckoned with
When Nawaz Sharif became prime minister of Pakistan, for the third time in 2013, he had more than a handful of issues to address. A dire economic situation and the energy crisis were probably not as high on his list of priorities as the rising threat of the Pakistani Taliban. TTP had gained more ground since Sharif’s last term as prime minister. Despite continuous US drone strikes and operations by Pakistan’s comparably huge army, the Pakistani Taliban remained a force to be reckoned with in the country.
Sharif has been criticised in the past for his softer stance on religious groups in Punjab. On the other hand, his relations with the military have been good as well. When it comes to the Pakistani Taliban, Sharif is definitely not a hardliner. He already offered to hold talks with the group a few months ago, which did not turn out as expected.
Hakimullah Mehsud, then TTP chief, was targeted in a US drone strike. His killing halted the dialogue process and the US was blamed for sabotaging the dialogue process. Such events cast doubt over the authenticity and seriousness of current talks since even now, no agreement exists between the US and Pakistan.
The US was blamed for sabotaging the dialogue process. Such events cast doubt over the authenticity and seriousness of current talks since even now, no agreement exists between the US and Pakistan.
The other major player in the dialogue process is the PTI Chief Imran Khan. Khan’s political party is in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province where major Taliban strongholds are located. Though criticised for his defensive stance on the Pakistani Taliban issue, Imran was the first to propose offices for the banned TTP long before any talk of dialogue was initiated. For his part, he was offered an important position by the TTP in the current dialogues. The TTP forwarded his name as a member of the committee to hold talks with the government on their behalf. Imran, however, saved his political reputation by pulling out of the committee.
A few questions arise from the stance on both sides of the table: Is the government serious about dialogue? Does the Pakistani Taliban really plan to lay down its weapons and become a part of the national political stream? And what internal or external factors might sabotage the dialogue process once again?
The answer to the first question is not difficult. The committee chosen by the government to launch dialogues comprises some very interesting characters. They include senior journalists like Irfan Siddiqui and Rahimullah Yousufzai, and former ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand. The committee does not include any member of the Legislative Assembly, the Senate or the Cabinet. With almost no decision-making power, it is hard to believe these members would lead to any reasonable conclusion.
As for the second question, the Pakistani Taliban has chosen its representatives in a similar fashion. The three members include religious figures like Maulana Abdul Aziz along with political leaders and religious hardliners Maulana Sami ul Haq. Though all three members are considered “Taliban apologists”, the mandate given to them by TTP is quite small. TTP has an established Shura or group of elders that makes all the decisions. They also have a spokesman, Shahid ullah Shahid, who is in constant communication with national and international media. Yet, they have opted for a committee that has no influence whatsoever.
Mullah Fazlullah is notorious for his tactical planning to buy time and space for his group; the same tactical planning that allowed him to rule over Swat for a long time. The reluctant efforts put into the dialogue process might prove disastrous for Pakistan and its people in the long run.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is the internal and external forces at play. The Taliban has often backed out of the midway dialogue process on any external intervention. Since the US has not offered to back down its drone policy, the next drone strike could very well melt the dialogue process away. The US and NATO forces are planning a pullout from neighbouring Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In view of Mullah Fazlullah’s good relations with the Afghan Taliban, a stable Taliban government or setup in the AfPak border areas is the last issue they would like to deal with.
It seems increasingly clear that the conditions offered by the Taliban for a settlement might prove as exaggerated as the ones offered in Swat a few years back. And the military might not stay on-board for very long. On the other hand, the Taliban could utilise the time to gather more force and win over more people in Pakistan to pose an even greater threat. A media presence could further empower the TTP to bring out its own model of government.
As Pakistan awaits the breakdown of yet another attempt at dialogue, somewhere in the hideouts of Miramshah, Mullah Radio plots his next tactical move.
Malik Ayub Sumbal is an award-winning journalist currently based in Islamabad.
Follow him on Twitter: @ayubsumbal