x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Talks with Pakistani Taliban on hold until after the offensive

The complex and heavily-armed politics of Pakistan's tribal regions have ominous implications for the whole country, and the region.

The reported assassination of the militant leader Maulvi Nazir, killed by a US drone strike on Wednesday night in South Waziristan agency, highlights the difficulty that Islamabad faces negotiating a truce in its fractious border areas. Nazir was considered to be a terrorist by Washington, but he was also widely believed to be a tribal leader in the area with whom Islamabad could negotiate. His death, if confirmed, may make negotiations even less likely.

Last year was one of the bloodiest in Pakistan's history, with attacks in Karachi and against Pakistani Shia, particularly in Balochistan, claimed by various Taliban-related groups. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has many different branches and, in the long run, it will be the Punjabi faction that will be the most dangerous. However, so far, the best organised and most lethal has been the Mehsud branch originating in South Waziristan.

The current leader of this faction, Hakimullah Mehsud, recently released a video, ostensibly agreeing to peace talks with Islamabad. At the same time, Mehsud said the TTP will never lay down its arms and called Pakistan a slave of the US government.

The recent video also showed Wali er-Rahman, Mehsud's aide, sitting by his side. Rumours had suggested a rift between the two, and that er-Rehman was being pressured by Pakistan's army to take over the Waziristan Taliban.

There may be little difference, between the two, but er-Rehman is believed to be less committed to the anti-Pakistan campaign that Mehsud favours. He might be more open to making peace in Pakistan to focus on the Taliban's original goal: fighting US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.

It is essential here to remember that the revolt of Pakistani Pashtun tribes began in 2004, after the militant leader Nek Muhammed became the first casualty of a US drone strike on Pakistani territory - a strike that was requested by Islamabad. That assassination came two months after the Shakai peace agreement between Muhammed and Pakistani forces, which broke down almost immediately.

When Pashtun tribes learnt that Pakistan had ordered a hit on Muhammed, they revolted at two levels: against the traditional tribal leadership that had supported the Shakai peace deal, and against the government, which was trying to prevent Pashtun tribesmen from joining the fight in Afghanistan.

However, while tribal leaders and elders were systematically targeted - and have been virtually eliminated - most of the tribes fought state security forces only in retaliation and, at that time, rarely targeted the civilian population.

Two noteworthy exceptions were Maulana Fazlullah's Taliban faction that dominated Swat several years ago (and is now being given safe haven in Afghanistan's province of Kunar) and Baitullah Mehsud's faction in South Waziristan, which was inherited by Hakimullah after Baitullah was killed by a US drone strike in 2009.

Every terrorist organisation needs a haven for its central command and control infrastructure and for training. The plains of Punjab province in eastern Pakistan are indefensible because of the terrain, but the Mehsuds were able to establish a based in South Waziristan agency, where many Punjabi Taliban were trained.

In recent offensives, Pakistan's army has forced the group from South Waziristan and the Mehsud faction to set up a base in Orakzai agency to the north.

With the military campaign in South Waziristan, many internally displaced people from the Mehsud tribe have migrated to North Waziristan, where the Pakistani army has been hesitant to open a new front. Many Punjabi Taliban, with Mehsud's blessing, have taken refuge there as well.

Conscious of this possibility, the army is building a highway connecting Wana, the largest city in South Waziristan, to the rest of the country. The highway should be completed this spring, putting the army into a position to carry out surgical strikes targeting the Punjabi TTP. Meanwhile, a council of elders of the Wazir tribe has served notice to Mehsud internal refugees to return to South Waziristan.

Perhaps these developments also played a role in Mehdud's tentative offer of peace.

However, the army is not biting, insisting that Mehsud's TTP disarm as a precondition for talks. The assumption is that Mehsud does not even enjoy the full support of his own tribe, let alone others.

Nor can the army permit time and space for the Punjabi TTP - often considered to be the most ideologically extreme of the Pakistani Taliban - to consolidate in North Waziristan. The time for action is approaching.

Mehsud's TTP coupled with the Punjabi TTP is Pakistan's worst nightmare. The battle for both Waziristans will affect the entire country.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer