The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, their unwillingness to expel the TTP and the growing threat of the ISKP may have forced Islamabad to negotiate with the terrorist group
Sher Bahadur, a school teacher from Swat valley, has been eagerly following the news about the ongoing secret talks between Pakistani officials and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) mediated by the Taliban regime in Kabul to end years of militancy in the country. The TTP has agreed to a month-long ceasefire starting from November 9.
“If the United States can talk to Afghan Taliban, why was Islamabad reluctant to talk to the TTP for so many years,” says Bahadur, who often visits Afghanistan’s Kunar province to meet his relatives, including his elder sister, who moved there in 2007, for fear of being arrested in the military operation against Taliban militants. The military and village elders had demolished their houses as punishment because of their alleged links with the militants.
“Families of the militants, most of them mere sympathisers of the movement, are tired of living in exile and want to return to their hometowns to live normal lives,” Bahadur says. “In the 14 years, children in these families have grown up. They see no future in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan.”
Thousands of families of TTP’s hard-core fighters and sympathisers – no official figures are available - from various areas, including the recently merged districts (former Tribal Areas) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were forced to flee and have been living in the neighbouring provinces of Afghanistan, mainly Kunar, Nangarhar and Khost, after several operations carried out by the military.
Since then, with support from the Afghan Taliban, various TTP factions have set up sanctuaries in Afghan provinces from where they have been planning and launching attacks in Pakistan. Operation Zarb-i-Azb, launched in 2014 against the TTP in Pakistan’s tribal areas, played a significant role in weakening the group in Pakistan.
Until mid-2020, the TTP was struggling to survive as a sustained military crackdown had forced most of its fighters to relocate to the neighbouring provinces of Afghanistan, following the deaths of successive leaders in US drone attacks and internal rifts.
However, the TTP has been reinvigorated with the reunification of several groups and induction of fighters from Al Qaeda and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. Most importantly, the militants have been encouraged by the Afghan Taliban’s return to power. Since their takeover, the Afghan Taliban have released thousands of prisoners including a significant number of the TTP leaders and members. A former TTP deputy chief, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, is among them.
“Families of the militants, most of them mere sympathisers of the movement, are tired of living in exile and want to return to their hometowns to live normal lives,” says Sher Bahadur.
Even before the Afghan Taliban took control of Kabul, the TTP had ramped up its attacks against Pakistani security forces in the areas bordering Afghanistan. According to published reports, the TTP claimed credit for 32 attacks in August, 37 in September and 24 in October. However, most of these claims could not be independently verified.
Pakistan may have been confident that the Afghan Taliban would prevent the TTP from using the Afghan soil for cross-border terrorism. However, the Afghan Taliban have shown great reluctance to fulfil Islamabad’s demands of closing TTP sanctuaries and expelling the fighters unwilling to stop attacks in Pakistan. Instead, the Afghan Taliban have been mediating between Islamabad and the TTP.
Islamabad is also worried about the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) recent attacks in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Experts say that the Afghan Taliban’s return to power, their unwillingness to expel the TTP and the growing threat of the ISKP have forced Islamabad to negotiate with the terrorists. “Although the peace talks seem unlikely to make headway, they will have far-reaching consequences for the hard-won national consensus to fight terrorism in Pakistan,” says Abdul Basit, a research fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.
Government officials and religious leaders familiar with the developments say that the key TTP demands include release of its prisoners, enforcement of shariah in the former Tribal Areas, provision of financial support to its fighters and permission to keep their weapons.
Between 2004 and 2009, Pakistan entered into at least nine (written and unwritten) deals with various militant groups. However, none of these nine agreements held or achieved their intended outcomes of peace. “On the contrary, these agreements allowed the militant groups to buy time to expand their influence in the society and spread their ideological narratives,” says Basit.
Opposition parties, particularly the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), have criticised the government for taking such a big step without first taking the parliament into confidence. “On what basis and under what conditions are the talks being held with the TTP? Why was the parliament not taken into confidence? Why did the government feel the need to hold secret talks with the TTP in this way?” questions Shazia Marri, a National Assembly member and the PPP information secretary.
Relatives of the victims of the assault on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar in December 2014 protested in front of the Islamabad Press Club last month after Prime Minister Imran Khan floated the idea of a general amnesty for the TTP.
“Talking to TTP terrorists is tantamount to betraying the thousands of innocent people killed by the terrorists,” said Farman Ali, a relative of a 10-year-old student who was killed in the APS attack. “We were told that the TTP has been broken. Now by offering the TTP a pardon, the government is emboldening the militants, who are still carrying out terrorist acts.”
The writer is a staffer at The News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org He tweets @zalmayzia