Pakistan’s Taliban Negotiating Peace, Preparing for War

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 18

Secret peace talks between the government and the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organization of Pakistani Taliban groups, collapsed in late April but the unilateral ceasefire declared by the latter is still in place (The News International [Islamabad], April 29).

By agreeing to continue observing the ceasefire, the TTP signaled its willingness to revive the peace negotiations, provided some of its demands were met. Speaking from an undisclosed location in Bajaur tribal region bordering Afghanistan, TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar told reporters that the government must show flexibility if it wanted the talks to resume (Dawn [Islamabad], May 4). Maulvi Omar said the government should withdraw Pakistan Army troops from Waziristan, Darra Adamkhel and Swat as part of confidence-building measures to create the proper atmosphere for the peace talks to proceed. He insisted that this was a commitment made by the government through a jirga (council of tribal elders) mediating between it and the TTP (The News International, May 4).

It was obvious that the two sides had sought to make the talks conditional to acceptance of their demands. The TTP wanted to link its announcement of the ceasefire to the withdrawal of troops from some of the tribal areas under its influence and also from the settled district of Swat. The TTP unilaterally announced a ceasefire on April 22 and entered into peace talks with tribal interlocutors sent by the government following assurances that the military would start pulling out of those parts of South Waziristan where top Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mahsud operated and in which his Mahsud tribe dwelled (Dawn, April 23). Baitullah Mahsud personally issued an emergency statement to announce the ceasefire and warn his fighters that violation of his orders would result in strict punishment, including public hanging (The News International, April 25). Subsequently, the TTP demanded that government troops should be withdrawn from all of South Waziristan, and possibly the adjoining North Waziristan, as well as from Darra Adamkhel and Swat. With a new peace accord still unsigned, this proved unacceptable to the government and the Pakistan Army and the negotiations broke down.

The government came up with the demand—apparently for public consumption and to reassure the United States and other Western powers—that peace talks would be held with only those militants who lay down their arms. Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, who belongs to the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), highlighted this condition in his first policy statement in the National Assembly after his election. He repeated it on a number of subsequent occasions and even claimed on May 4 that his government had yet to start peace talks with the militants (Geo TV, Islamabad, May 5). His assertions were contrary to fact and were part of the government’s efforts to deny the existence of secret negotiations already taking place with the TTP. His emphasis that the militants should give up arms and renounce militancy before talks was unrealistic; even President General Pervez Musharraf—who probably is more pro-U.S. than any other Pakistani leader to date—never imposed this condition while negotiating peace accords with the Pakistani Taliban in the past. In fact, behind-the-scene contacts with the TTP through tribal jirgas were established even before the February 18 elections that brought Gilani’s party to power. Formal talks involving the tribal elders, two TTP representatives Maulvi Omar and Maulvi Waliur Rahman, and two representatives of the Pakistan Army and the governor of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) began in early April. The talks started making headway when the government released two Taliban commanders, Raees Khan and Younas Khan, and the TTP restrained its fighters from attacking security forces (The News International, April 26).

As clearly stated by the TTP, the militants retaliated despite the ceasefire when they came under attack from the law enforcement agencies. On April 25 they bombed a police station in Mardan, the second-biggest city in the NWFP after Peshawar, killing a police officer and two civilians to avenge the death of militant Hafiz Saeedul Haq at the hands of the police in a nearby village the previous day (The News International, April 26). It was a grim reminder that the militants would retaliate for every attack against them and take revenge. But it also showed that some groups of Taliban militants, despite being TTP components, would continue to make their own decisions and implement their local agendas. The TTP—essentially an umbrella organization for disparate groups of militants—is not monolithic: Its components had to make decisions with regard to the needs of local politics in their respective areas of operations. This meant that the government would have to negotiate two parallel peace accords in certain places, including a general one with the TTP and another more specific one with local militants such as those operating in Mardan, Swat and Darra Adamkhel. Implementing and monitoring such peace accords and keeping them intact would be a tiresome and complex affair, more so if one were to keep in mind how previous agreements of this type were brazenly violated by the militants and, occasionally, by the security forces as well.

Despite the deadlock, the two sides still appear to be willing to talk. There were reports that the tribal jirga—this time including some Afghan Taliban figures with influence on Pakistani Taliban—was to hold another round of talks with Baitullah Mahsud on May 5. The new initiative could not have come without the government’s blessings. It is likely that talks would initially focus on implementing a truce with Baitullah Mahsud in South Waziristan and linking withdrawal of the military from some of his areas to a promise by Mahsud to expel foreign militants, stop cross-border infiltration of his fighters to Afghanistan and refrain from attacking security forces. Pakistani authorities are hoping that Baitullah Mahsud will use his influence to restore peace and stability in the rest of the tribal areas and NWFP. However, past efforts at appeasement only raised Baitullah Mahsud’s stature and enabled him to extend his influence far beyond his headquarters in South Waziristan. He now holds the key to efforts aimed at stabilizing the tribal borderlands of the NWFP and reducing attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghan border provinces such as Khost, Paktia, Paktika and Ghazni.

A statement by TTP senior deputy leader Maulana Faqir Muhammad, who is based in Bajaur tribal region, is important in understanding the mind of the Pakistani Taliban. He said the Pakistani Taliban were ready to make peace with Pakistan’s government and military as their main aim was to fight the United States and other “occupying forces” in Afghanistan. Once the TTP signs a peace accord with the Pakistani government, it would be able to free its fighters to join Afghan Taliban and launch attacks inside Afghanistan. The TTP spokesman, Maulvi Omar, advised NATO to sign similar peace deals with the Afghan Taliban and offered to play a role in making this possible along the line of peace agreements that Pakistani Taliban have been concluding with Islamabad (The News International, April 26).

It seems the TTP at this stage is not planning to establish its writ in all of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and NWFP or set up a Taliban state in Pakistan. The TTP leadership knows it lacks the capacity to accomplish this objective at this stage in the absence of high level public support. The TTP’s immediate goal is to force the Pakistani government to sign a peace accord so that its power is recognized and its interests are protected. It is unlikely to hand over al-Qaeda-linked foreign militants—whose total according to one U.S. report is now somewhere between 150 and 400—to the Pakistani government. The TTP leadership also knows that peace accords with the government would not last long in view of almost certain opposition from the United States, its Western allies and the Afghan government. Thus Pakistan’s Taliban sees the peace talks and accords as a temporary phenomenon and remains on a war footing.