Since the August U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Kabul, the Pakistani government’s peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or “Pakistani Taliban”) have been suspended. The Afghan Taliban’s Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob further accused Pakistan of allowing the U.S. to use its airspace to conduct the drone attack (Dawn, August 29). Some Taliban leaders even went to the extent of alleging that the U.S. drones took off from Pakistani soil. In retaliation, the Taliban halted peace talk mediation between Pakistan and TTP. In the context of Pakistan’s deteriorating relationship with the Taliban in Kabul, this article examines the factors resulting in the suspension of the Pakistani government’s talks with the Taliban’s counterparts in Pakistan —the TTP.
The Afghan Taliban’s Changing Tone Toward Pakistan
The last round of formal talks between the TTP and a Pakistani tribal Jirga, which was mediating on behalf of the Pakistan establishment, was held in Kabul on July 28. Since then, as peace talks have been suspended, the TTP and Pakistani security forces have resumed verbal attacks against each other, despite not formally announcing an end to the June ceasefire or the peace process (Express Tribune, August 1). The foremost reason for suspending the ceasefire and talks, however, is not necessarily related to the tribal jirga’s performance or even the TTP itself, but rather Pakistan’s deteriorating relations with the Taliban leadership in Kabul. Since al-Zawahiri’s assassination, the Taliban have focused on Afghanistan’s internal situation and the repercussions of al-Zawahiri’s presence in a Taliban safehouse, such as the U.S. decision not to unfreeze Afghan assets in the U.S. federal reserves and reduced chances of receiving international diplomatic recognition. At this stage, the TTP’s talks with Pakistan are, therefore, not among the Taliban’s immediate priorities.
The Taliban’s tone and tenor toward Pakistan has also become increasingly harsh. For instance, in September, the Taliban’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs, Sher Abbas Satnikzai, criticized Pakistan when stating, “I have videos to show from which airport it [the drone] flies and from where it comes. Millions of dollars are being paid for each flight. This is a business. Don’t deal with the fate of these people [Afghans]. If you [Pakistan] are hungry and don’t have food and cannot manage your country, try to find another path [other than helping the U.S.]” (Tolo News, September 27). He, therefore, accused Pakistan of expanding counter-terrorism cooperation with the U.S. to revive Pakistan’s sinking economy by infringing on Afghanistan’s sovereignty.
Likewise, the killing of four TTP leaders in different parts of Afghanistan has also forced the Taliban to suspend numerous public interactions with the Pakistani delegations in Kabul, such as the tribal Jirga, and to review the security arrangements of TTP leaders in Afghanistan (Gandhara, August 9). As a precautionary measure, for example, TTP has moved its leader, Nur Wali Mehsud, to an undisclosed location where no one is allowed to see him other than his most trusted confidants. This was prompted by the assassination of three senior TTP commanders, Abdul Wali (alias Omar Khalid Khorasani), Hafiz Dawlat Khan and Mufti Hassan, through an improvised explosive device (IED) attack while travelling to Birmal district in Afghanistan’s Paktika province (Dawn, August 8). Similarly, TTP’s intelligence head, Abdul Rashid (alias Uqabi Bajauri), was eliminated in a landmine blast in Afghanistan’s Kunar province (Express Tribune, August 8). TTP, for its part, accuses Pakistan of killing these leaders, which factored into TTP’s decision to suspend peace talks. At the same time, TTP has resumed attacks against the Pakistani security forces under the pretext of defensive or retaliatory attacks.
Additional Factors for Stalled Talks
Another factor contributing to suspension of the Pakistani government-TTP talks is the August transfer of former Corps Commander Peshawar Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed to Bahawalpur in Punjab Province, Pakistan. The peace talks were the personal endeavor of the Taliban’s Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani on the Afghanistan side and Faiz Hameed on the Pakistan side. In the aftermath of al-Zawahiri’s death, Sirajuddin became focused on Afghanistan’s internal security situation, especially as al-Zawahiri was in a safe house belonging to the Haqqani Network of Sirajuddin’s family (The Hindu, August 2).
At the same time, Faiz Hameed, who was the other important interlocutor and was pivotal in pushing the peace process forward, is now in Bahawalpur (Samaa News, August 8). He, therefore, cannot continue pushing for the peace talks. More broadly, the Pakistan Army is undergoing a leadership transition, with the Pakistani army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, also set to retire in November before a new chief will be appointed in his place (Dawn, October 5). Until the leadership transition in the Pakistan Army is completed, the ceasefire and peace talks with the TTP will remain suspended (Arab News Pakistan, September 20).
Even prior to the suspension, the peace talks had been deadlocked as both the Pakistani government and TTP stuck to their redlines (Terrorism Monitor, October 7). Pakistan’s efforts to bring flexibility into TTP stances by sending a delegation of religious scholars under the influential Deobandi scholar Mufti Taqi Usmani, who is revered by the Afghan Taliban and TTP, also failed (Tolo News, July 27). TTP considers the reversal of the ex-FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the retaining of its organizational structure, and the ability to possess weapons as redlines on which it cannot compromise. Pakistan, on the contrary, demands the TTP dissolve its organization, lay down its arms, and abide by Pakistan’s constitutional framework, including forswearing the “demerger” of ex-FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Although Pakistan and TTP have not announced a formal end to the ceasefire or peace talks, practically these processes are over (Dawn, September 5). In the future, if peace talks are revived, it will require fresh efforts from both sides to reach a political settlement. However, the growing U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation in Afghanistan and the latter’s deteriorating ties with the Taliban in Kabul will act as headwinds that hinder efforts to revive the peace talks (Express Tribune, October 2). Hence, Pakistan will have to mend its differences with the Taliban in Afghanistan as a precursor to reviving peace talks with TTP in Pakistan itself.