Menu Close

Talking with Taliban won’t end Pakistan’s ‘existential threat’

Can the smiles last? Irfan Siddiqui, special assistant to Pakistan’s prime minister, and Taliban representative Maulana Sami-ul-Haq chat after their meeting. EPA/T. Mughal

Talks between the government of Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), were initiated last week in a secret location in the country’s north-west. These talks have been greatly anticipated since last September’s All Parties Conference of political and military leaders approved negotiations.

Unfortunately, talking to the TTP is not the way to fix the problem. In any case, the talks are bound to fail because of unbridgeable differences.

These talks, which Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif foreshadowed in the election campaign last year, are meant to deal with a violent jihadist militancy. The violence has cost the lives of some 40,000 people – mainly civilians – since 2005.

The gravity of the situation is such that the prime minister’s national security adviser, Sartaj Aziz, warned at a recent seminar in Washington that this militancy posed an “existential threat” to Pakistan.

While this may be unnecessary hyperbole, it is nevertheless true that something needs to be done to try to stop the death and destruction that TTP terrorists are spreading indiscriminately across Pakistan. As far as the TTP is concerned, anyone who does not adhere to their brutal and medieval interpretation of Islam is fair game, be they Sunni, Shia, Sufi or Christian.

Why the talks are doomed to fail

The government has made it clear from the outset that it wishes to discuss only the militant situation in the two tribal regions of South and North Waziristan, which are the heartland of the TTP. The TTP wants the negotiations to cover the whole country.

The TTP is also demanding sharia law be imposed throughout Pakistan, and has declared the constitution and the democratic system of government to be un-Islamic. The government wants the talks to be held within the framework of the constitution.

Further, the TTP wants Pakistan to break its ties with Washington immediately. Islamabad may have had its differences with America, but an end to that relationship is not going to happen – at least not for the moment.

However, even if – and that’s a very big if – the Pakistani government and the TTP did manage to reach some sort of agreement, it is far from certain that the TTP negotiating team could sell the agreement to its many militant factions. These are divided by tribal affiliation, operational differences and competition for local domination. Not all militants support the talks.

Lessons from the past

Even if an agreement was reached, the likelihood that such an accord would stick is minimal. In the past, the government of Pakistan has cut many deals with militants, who have broken each of these.

The most notorious of these agreements was made in the scenic Swat Valley in 2009. The TTP was meant to put down its weapons in return for the implementation of sharia law in that region. Instead, the TTP continued fighting and threatened the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. It took 35,000 troops to dislodge the TTP fighters.

The local leader of the TTP in the Swat Valley then was Mullah Fazlullah. Fazlullah has been the overall leader of the TTP since late 2013, when a drone strike killed his predecessor.

The Swat Valley’s return to normal life in 2009 was brief. Local militant leader Mullah Fazlullah, who is now the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, broke the peace deal with the government. EPA/Rashid Iqbal

Why are they talking now?

Some suspect that the government is pursuing these talks only to give it the excuse it needs to begin a military operation against TTP forces holed up in North Waziristan, one of the tribal regions on the Afghan border.

However, such an operation would be particularly difficult. The region has high ridges, deep ravines and virtually no infrastructure. This makes it a difficult environment for conducting successfully counter-insurgency operations.

Also, as has happened in the past, TTP fighters will most likely flee across the border into Afghanistan once the army moves in. There they will be able to re-group to fight another day.

Notwithstanding the difficulties in hunting down these TTP fighters, their continued presence provides friendly operational space for the Afghan Taliban and other ideological travellers. These forces are bent on retaking power in Kabul after the US troop withdrawal this year. This is another reason why the TTP’s capability needs to be seriously diminshed.

It is generally acknowledged that the Pakistani government does not appear to have a civil-military plan in place to deal with the consequences of such a military operation, which would most likely displace hundreds of thousands of people. It must be hoped the government’s long-awaited counter-terrorism strategy will go some way to correcting this lack of planning.

In the meantime, the Pakistani authorities have no other option but to confront the TTP militarily. Talking to these al-Qaeda-friendly terrorists and potentially conceding state authority to illegal non-state actors only encourages them to demand more and kill more civilians. In January alone, more than 100 people were killed.

The only good news is that, except for the Islamic parties, there is no constituency of any significance for the TTP’s retrograde and brutal agenda of replacing the constitution with sharia law. This is likely to be why they resort to violence.

No date has been set for the next round of talks.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 170,800 academics and researchers from 4,735 institutions.

Register now