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TTP conundrum

Thursday, Nov 11, 2021

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By Rana Jawad

ISLAMABAD: The government decision to engage in peace talks with the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been engulfed in controversy even before the final deal can be struck and threatens to plunge the current political order into yet more chaos.

The PTI-led federal government has vehemently argued that their intention is to end a violent conflict that has claimed the lives of thousands of citizens, including security personnel, and achieve a lasting peace inside Pakistan. However, the decision to engage the TTP in dialogue is fraught with contradictions.

This is not the first time the Pakistani state is negotiating with the banned group. Successive governments, each with noble intentions, have attempted the same in the past. However, all such attempts to negotiate a lasting peace with the TTP have failed so far. Recall how former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, after coming to power in 2013, made efforts to negotiate a peace agreement with the TTP. That process unraveled when militants attacked the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi.

Now, the Government of Pakistan and the TTP have announced a ceasefire in order to allow peace talks to proceed. Figures in the corridors of power are insisting that talks will only be held with militants willing to lay down their arms. But these figures are merely echoing the rhetoric of the PPP government, led by Yusuf Raza Gilani, which came to power in 2008. They too hoped to negotiate a secret peace agreement with the TTP, but that arrangement never saw the light of day. Despite many rounds of talks facilitated by tribal elders, the TTP continued to mount attacks on security personnel, schools and minority groups.

Even at its peak, the TTP was unable to fully erase the writ of the state in areas where the militant group was the strongest. However, it did gain a formidable ability to launch deadly attacks inside Pakistan seemingly at will. Ultimately, the magnitude of the TTP threat became undeniable for both the political and military leaderships of the country and the massacre of nearly 150 people, mostly schoolchildren, in the Army Public School, Peshawar, became a definitive turning point.

Soon after this attack, the political and the army leadership came together to decisively end the TTP threat by combining an already underway full-scale military operation in Waziristan with the National Action Plan, which enhanced the surveillance and counterterrorism capacity of the state.

For a while, as TTP networks were smashed and their strongholds destroyed, incidents of terrorism declined across the country. And a while after military operations were launched, a media campaign was generated that claimed Pakistan had won the fight against militancy – though no formal victory was ever declared. But if there was a peace, it was brief and ultimately illusory. The TTP soon regrouped under Noor Wali Mehsud and now has gained ideological strength in the wake of the Afghan Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan amidst the debacle of the US withdrawal.

Pakistani officials argue that the current talks are taking place from a position of strength during a window of opportunity that favours Pakistan. With the Afghan Taliban struggling to govern as it is starved of official Afghan funds withheld by Western powers, there is a belief in official circles here that the Afghan Taliban may be more willing to help make the TTP lay down their arms and in return have Pakistan help secure some international commitments to Afghanistan.

In addition, Pakistani officials assert that India was a principal supporter and financier of the TTP in Afghanistan and with its withdrawal from the country, the TTP has reduced capabilities and options.

Yet, it could be argued that from the perspective of the TTP, it is in fact the TTP that is negotiating with the Pakistani government from a position of strength. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been projected as a historic triumph of the jihadi project while the release of nearly 5,000 hardcore militants from Afghan prisons has also swelled the ranks of the TTP.

If the Taliban could force the war-weary Americans to come to the negotiating table, sign a withdrawal arrangement and then leave ignominy -- allowing the Afghan Taliban to sweep back to power -- then why can the TTP not believe in the same formula over the long term for itself?

As now reported, the TTP has called for negotiations in a third country, mimicking their Afghan counterparts' negotiations with the US in Doha, Qatar. Is the TTP then seeking recognition similar to what the Afghan Taliban sought from the rest of the world?

Here in Pakistan, the time is near for hard choices to be made. Although, the military leadership has briefed parliamentary leaders on the talks with TTP, a debate in parliament is yet to be held. The political leadership was informed that the final terms of peace deal with the TTP would be presented to the parliament for a decision. Does this mean that rejecting a peace deal is still an option for the parliament?