x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Taliban killings force Pakistan to re-evaluate allies

After Taliban's attacks, Pakistan must realise the best hope for it to function as a state is to stop relying on armed non-state actors for its security.

Twenty-one Pakistani policemen, kidnapped by the Taliban at the weekend, were blindfolded, lined up and shot one by one. That account, reported by Pakistani officials, came from another soldier, who was wounded but managed to escape. The killings are a further blow in the country's north-east, where the Taliban now operate with a frightening freedom of action.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, known as the Pakistani Taliban to differentiate them from their counterparts from Afghanistan, have stepped up attacks this month, with several bombings in Peshawar and a nationwide murder campaign targeting polio-vaccination social workers.

And yet, even as Taliban were kidnapping soldiers at checkpoints near Peshawar, TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud appeared on a propaganda video suggesting that his group would negotiate with Islamabad, although it would not disarm.

It is important to remember that the Taliban do not form a monolithic group, even within the TTP. Pakistani officials had speculated that Mehsud's lieutenant, Wali ur-Rehman, might take over the leadership role and prove to be less hostile towards the Pakistani state, while continuing to fight against Nato forces in Afghanistan. Friday's video, in which Mehsud emphasised that ur-Rehman would be with him "until death" may have been meant to dispel that speculation as much as anything else.

Pakistan walks a delicate line here, working with militant groups that it deems are useful, and fighting others that are destabilising the state. It is the end result of a decades-long policy, first focused on extremist militants such as Lashkar-i-Taiba, which carried out terrorist attacks in India, and then on the Afghan Taliban, which was seen as a strategic regional ally. The result has been to cede space for the TTP to metastasise until it began to target soldiers and social workers, not to mention young girls such as Malala Yousafzai.

As the Americans plan their exit from Afghanistan, closing a chapter on more than a decade of destabilising occupation, Pakistan has a role to play negotiating a truce with the Afghan Taliban. There is, however, very little room for common ground in Pakistan for the likes of Mehsud.

Pakistan must realise the best hope for it to function as a state is to stop relying on armed non-state actors for its security. Preparing for war by proxy has led Pakistan to an existential fight with the very groups it has armed.