TTP’s affaire de coeur with Pakistan

Spearhead Analysis – 15.02.2013

By Nida Afaque
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

February’s amorous aura is often attributed to the rejoicing of hearts. But perhaps the love contagion is stronger than we would like to admit. This year, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) offered to hold talks with the Pakistani government albeit with some pre-conditions. Several issues regarding this offer are troublesome.

The peace offer surfaced just about the same time when world leaders decided to hold talks with Afghan Taliban ahead of a complete withdrawal of forces in Afghanistan. Coincidence? Probably not. It appears that TTP might be feeling insecure about being sidelined in the Afghan rehabilitation process. Talks might give the Afghan Taliban a chance to fulfill their demands of sovereignty and independence. For TTP, it could mean an end to a cause that has so far been used to recruit followers, stay relevant and maintain their “legitimacy”.

Interest in talks is not a new subject for the TTP. In the past 9 years, talks and deals have been made five times. Unfortunately, none have held up the test of time. The Swat Operation in fact proved that renegades could not be trusted to honor agreements. As a result, there is little hope that the new talks proposed by the Taliban will be accepted by the Pakistani government.

The government has to consider the symbolic interpretation of holding talks. While some argue that dialogue is not the same as defeat, there is widespread fear about how news of this meeting would be received by the armed forces, politicians and masses. Holding talks can be seen as legitimizing their presence but sending a low-level official as a government representative could show interest in peace without compromising on their reservations.

TTP has demanded the fulfillment of certain pre-conditions to the talks; the release of 5 members in the custody of Pakistani forces. Most noteworthy of these are Muslim Khan and Maulvi Omar. The former was a spokesperson for Mullah Fazullah while the latter was a close comrade of Baitullah Masud. Both these TTP commanders will lead the proposed negotiations. The Pakistani government has in return demanded TTP to give up arms as sign of sincerity.

If one is to assume that talks do happen, what will each side suggest? TTP wants to enforce Shariah Islam and put an end to western interference in Pakistan’s matters. The government wants TTP to terminate their violent activities, stop providing safe havens to foreign militants and end the misuse of Pakistani soil for launching domestic and foreign terrorist attacks. But what incentives can they offer to the militants? The peace process cannot be simplified to a round table with the TTP on one side and the government on the other. There are multiple and often contradictory opinions over how to approach a peace deal. The government especially has to consider the army’s viewpoint. The latter has incurred heavy losses in running counter terrorism operations. Dialogue with TTP could mean an admittance of failure while a deal would trivialize the loss of civilian lives and military manpower. On the other hand, TTP is a conglomerate of different militant groups and it is likely that suggestions during the negotiation are unacceptable to one or more factions in the TTP.

As part of its pre-conditions, the TTP also picked three guarantors for the peace talks namely Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Ameer Munawar Hasan, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazl-ul-Rehman and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) chief, Nawaz Sharif. This selection demands some serious thought. All three guarantors have supported a democratic setup in Pakistan, a stance that opposes the form of statehood envisioned by the TTP, which has repeatedly showed distaste for the Constitution of Pakistan.

JUI-F and JI have been notorious for having a soft spot for the Taliban. But picking Nawaz Sharif, who has served twice as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, hints at some level of prior understanding between PML-N and TTP. Sharif has refused the guarantor offer because of the unreliable participation of the government in the talks. Personally, however, he favors the idea. Apparently, numerous terrorist attacks in Punjab were not strong enough to change PML-N’s appeasement approach towards the Taliban. Wooing right-wing votes for the upcoming elections could damage the party and in the long run, the country.

One must laud the TTP for their clever strategy. In offering to hold talks with a political committee composed of its leaders, it hopes to earn some public support and in turn, divide the masses. Should the government proceed with the offer or not? The ball is now in the government’s court; if they ignore the offer, TTP will have proof of their superficial motives and if they agree to the talks, it would unleash more problems.

For the time being, TTP’S offer for talks will probably blow over. But the issue of sustainable peace will still persist. Twenty-four political parties including large scale parties like PPP and PML-N have agreed to hold talks with the Taliban. Although this is a positive step, Pakistan is still far away from a national counter-terrorism policy. It needs to develop a strategy to deal with militants in a given time frame. Since this option is progressing at snail’s pace, the possibility of dialogue should not be discarded completely. Talks under the current pre-conditions may not be feasible but these conditions can be modulated to reach a better point in this love-hate relationship.