x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Taliban talks are an uncertain solution to Pakistan's crisis

Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan proposes peace talks whenever army operations reach their peak. Now the group has proposed another round to truce talks.

Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan has recently offered to negotiate a peace deal with the Pakistan Army, naming three senior political figures as guarantors to the talks.

A brief history of previous deals in Pakistan suggests what the latest one may bring.

Pakistani forces first entered the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in 2001, but after suffering high casualties the army ceased military operations in favour of a negotiated peace.

A deal struck with militant commander Nek Muhammad Wazir in South Waziristan - known as the Shakai Accord - broke down after Wazir's death in a missile attack in June 2004.

After a hasty blockade of the Mehsud area of South Waziristan, the government entered into another agreement, the Sararogha Accord. But attacks on security forces resumed in July 2005. These gave way to talks, and another peace deal.

After that agreement, there were persistent reports of a threefold increase in Taliban attacks on coalition forces across the border, in the Afghan districts of Khost and Paktia, adjoining Waziristan.

The peace within Pakistan disintegrated after the 2007 Lal Masjid incident, when an unruly radical madrassah in Islamabad, the federal capital, was raided with much bloodshed.

Another peace pact, signed in March 2007 with TTP commander Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, turned sour when 80 students of a religious seminary at Chenagai lost their lives, ostensibly to a US drone missile.

The Pakistani government also signed an abortive peace deal, in Khyber Agency, with Mangal Bagh of Lashkar-i-Islam, a TTP affiliate.

In Swat, attempts at peace with the paramount TTP commander Maulana Fazlullah all fell into disarray as well.

Under a peace agreement of May 2008, Fazlullah agreed to cease attacks on Pakistani security forces and government installations, deny shelter to foreign militants in Swat, dismantle his militia and terrorist infrastructure, and end anti-Pakistan and anti-government propaganda.

In return the government agreed to release jailed militants, promulgate Sharia law in the region, set up an Islamic university in Swat and withdraw troops from the region.

But in June 2008, Fazlullah started complaining about tardy implementation of the agreement, and, on this pretext, resumed attacks. In response, the Pakistani army launched Operation Rah-e-Haq II the next month, relying on air power and artillery. This had little success against the guerrilla tactics of the Taliban.

Meanwhile, in Bajaur, the TTP opened another front; the army was forced to withdraw troops from Swat to concentrate on Operation Sherdill near the Durand Line. Because Swat also remained unsettled, Operation Rah-e-Haq III was launched in January 2009 to secure the district capital, Mingora.

It seems that whenever the TTP is negotiating from a position of strength, it makes increasingly strident demands.

In July of 2008, for instance, TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, now deceased, told the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that it must resign, or face TTP suicide attacks throughout Pakistan. The government rejected the demand.

More recently, along with the latest peace offerings, the TTP carried out attacks in Serai Naurang and Lakki Marwat, which left 13 security personnel dead. In general, the TTP tends to raise the threshold of negotiation when a settlement seems to be in sight.

Operations Rah-e-Rast in Swat and Rah-e-Nijat in South Waziristan ended the negotiation cycle, and it seemed that the TTP had been forced onto the defensive.

However, a trend of escalating sectarian terrorist attacks in Baluchistan, plus attacks on security forces in Khyber Pahtunkhwa province, may have induced some battle fatigue on the government side.

This is especially true because Karachi is also beset by endemic violence, such as Sunday night's bomb blast that killed 45 outside a Shia mosque.

No group has claimed that attack, but no matter who pushed the button, it is clearly a sharp new escalation of sectarian violence that is destabilising the country.

Over the years, it is evident that from a strategic perspective, the TTP has obtained many advantages from the series of agreements it has made with the government, as outlined above.

These deals have tended to occur when the military, after overcoming its initial difficulties, has begun to regain lost ground.

Talks, usually brokered by tribally constituted arbitration bodies known as jirgas, or other third parties, are proposed when government military operations are reaching their offensive peaks.

But many agreements reached this way have been interrupted by the TTP, after army efforts abate.

The government's counterinsurgency policy was initially inconsistent; so that the intermittent ceasefires tended to be violated by the TTP, which used the quiet periods to build up their strength and to impose their radical requirements on the local populace.

Because so many peace deals fell flat on their faces, Pakistan adopted a no-compromise stance towards the TTP, in the form of vigorously pursued operations like Rah-e-Rast, which restored the writ of the state in Swat. The TTP's insistence on political guarantors is perhaps the only new facet of such offers.

It remains to be seen what the fate of the latest offer to make a deal will be.


Manzar Zaidi is a security analyst and academic whose most recent book, Insights into Pakistan's Insecurity, was published in June