A journalist linked with the New York Times, Ihsanullah Tipu, tweeted Pakistan government recently set up a special task desk for negotiations with TTP. Then there was the RT interview of Prime Minister Imran Khan formally confirming that the government is in talks with the TTP to lay down arms. He said the aim is to seek reconciliation with the reconcilable elements of the TTP.
This decision to engage the TTP fits well with the PM's narrative of resolving militancy politically and is in line with his ideology of pacifism (which) he preached all along. The Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani Network, is believed to be mediating between the TTP and the Pakistani government.
The ceasefire announcement by Hafiz Gul Bahadur group after the release of its prisoners by the government is a breakthrough of these talks. Hafiz Gul Bahadur group was not formally part of the TTP but was in some operational alliance with them. It was operating out of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region during the last decade. The engagement with the TTP should be seen in the light of the experience of 2014. In March 2014 when all was set for NWA operation, the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a surprise announcement in the National Assembly that he had made a 5 member committee to negotiate with the TTP. A retired intelligence officer, Major Amir, was a part of the committee.
The TTP, however, only used that window of negotiations to reorganise and gain time. Hence, the operation launched in July 2014 became costlier and later the unfortunate APS incident ensued.
However, this time the talks with the TTP have international, constitutional, social and sectarian consequences with the attendant implications for the army's morale. No political solution can be sought beyond the bounds of the Constitution. Some obvious conclusion of the talks is the possible release of the TTP terrorists who are involved in the crimes. Killings and massacre hence cannot be condoned without any due process of law. For example, the PML-N leaders are asked to face charges in courts where the TTP terrorists can be released through an amnesty.
Socially, a notion of victory by the TTP through a possible peace deal will add to the narrative of PTM that TTP and militancy is Pakistan’s state project and this is why they are being rehabilitated. This narrative will boost PTM in ex-tribal and other Pashtun areas to a level never seen before. Those ex-militants who fought with the state against the TTP will again be facing the prospect of target killing by the TTP and the state will be a helpless spectator. Reinvigorated TTP in the erstwhile FATA region will also increase their penetration.
Internationally, it will strengthen the narrative of lobbies in Washington and London that the TTP is like the Afghan Taliban who may get everything after the conceivable collapse of the government. The TTP may even get hold of Pakistani nukes since a nuclear state is on its knees begging terrorists for peace terms. It will cast Pakistan in a negative light as was the depiction of US vs Afghan Taliban. It will boost the image of the TTP internationally and so it’s external legitimacy.
Secondly, the Afghan Taliban were under pressure to dismantle the TTP sanctuaries, and after the talks the TTP will be rehabilitated in Afghanistan and may even get to ministerial positions. Now, (Afghan Taliban) will be off the hook. If the post-talks ceasefire down the line unravels, then the Pakistani state has not only to fight the emboldened TTP and their sanctuaries but also the entire Taliban-led Afghanistan.
Then there is a sectarian angle to the talks with the TTP: “The state cannot negotiate with anyone taking law in his hands’’, is what this government told Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP).
Labaik’s foot soldiers were heard saying only because we do not conduct suicide attacks and IEDs. So after the notion of success of the TTP to bring the state on its knees (i.e. of negotiations), Brelvi Labaik will have all the reasons to compete on the same course–get kinetic and get legitimacy.
Talks are bad for the morale of armed forces. On average, every day we lose two soldiers to TTP ambushes and attacks. We gave them the pep talk that combating the TTP was justified as they attack a Muslim state and anyone fighting the TTP is a martyr. Now, what will be the reaction of armed forces which are losing soldiers and officers to TTP attacks? And what will we tell the families of the APS victims and those families whose loved ones’ severed heads were played as football by the TTP militants? The government and GHQ will likely be on a divergent path on the TTP issue. The Prime Minister this time may be directly creating a fault line with the GHQ, given the apprehension of the army on such sensitive issues.
The talks will also give international legitimacy to the TTP which will make Imran Khan look like Hamid Karzai. Parallels will be drawn with the Afghan Taliban negotiating with external force, i.e. America and the Viet Cong insurgents vs US.
Another aspect their sanctuaries in Afghanistan have not been completely wiped out. Any respite to TTP in its Afghan sanctuaries at this moment will help them survive for another day and morph into a much stronger force.
The government and the security agencies need to weigh the cost-benefit analysis of such negotiations against immediate dismantling of TTP’s Afghan sanctuaries. Any talks done from a position of weakness will not neutralise the militant outfit/insurgency. Only if substantially weakened in kinetic terms, the TTP foot soldiers will be convinced of the futility of fighting.
As a baseline, the option of talks is a face-saving by the Afghan Taliban, and also if needed at all, one outcome can be an exile option for all the TTP-related followers–they go to Afghanistan if the Afghan Taliban accept them with guarantee (that) they won’t come back. It will deter some legitimisation of TTP actions they do inside Pakistan.
However, Pakistan is at a net loss, and here is how: If the likely outcome of the talks with the Taliban is a success, after four and five months, the TTP will get internal legitimacy and emerge even stronger in Pakistan. And if they fail, the TTP will get international legitimacy and boost perception at the expense of the state. The ball is in the government’s court.
Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai
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