The South Asia Channel

Talks with the Taliban in Pakistan?

Talks with the Taliban in Pakistan?

The two successive attacks last week on pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who heads Pakistan’s largest religious party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F), caught many observers by surprise. Yet these attacks against a strong supporter of the Taliban give credence to increasing evidence of rifts among the Taliban factions in Pakistan, whose central leadership – insofar as one can say the movement has a central leadership – is underground, and their organizational structure shattered in face of the increasing number of drone strikes and military operations. Yet this division masks new efforts by Taliban supporters in the Pakistani government to bring some militant groups, including the group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) back in the fold, as the country’s military and security services plan for the future.

Maulana Fazlur Rahman, whose party seldom if ever condemns the suicide attacks in FATA, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and rest of Pakistan, barely escaped when a suicide bomber detonated himself close to his convoy in Swabi district of KP on March 30. On March 31, the cleric again came under attack when he was on way to attend a public meeting organized by his party workers in Charsadda district, around 20 kilometers east of Peshawar.

No one claimed responsibility for either of the attacks. Earlier, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the tribal areas killed Sultan Amir Tarar, aka Col. Imam, the man believed to be the key character behind the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan, after keeping him for 10 months in captivity. Though the Pakistani government claimed that Col. Imam died of a heart attack, the militants announced that they killed him after the government did not respond to their demands, which were never made public.

The killing and suicide attacks, a hallmark of TTP and related groups, are a new twist in the ongoing war on terror. Speaking to reporters on the scene of the March 31 blast in Charsadda, KP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said during a segment later broadcast on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language Mashaal Radio that the attacks on Maulana Fazlur Rahman pointed to the growing divisions in the ranks of Taliban.

Additionally, recent attacks on the Shi’a in Kurram agency provide further evidence of splintering among Taliban factions. Though a peace agreement between Shi’as and Sunnis was signed in February with the support of the Haqqani Network and welcomed by some Taliban groups, attacks from an unknown group continue against Shi’as traveling from Peshawar to Parachinar, Upper Kurram’s main town.

In this environment of spiraling violence, Pakistan may be trying to bring certain militant groups back into the fold. Some official sources believe that following the opening of U.S. and NATO peace efforts with the Taliban through the Afghan government, the Pakistani side also reportedly started its own efforts to rein in rogue Taliban or other militant groups in the event of a peace deal between the Afghan government and Afghan Taliban in that country, and before the groups split too far from each other to be brought to heel.

As part of these efforts, sources tell me that contacts are being established with some estranged fighters of JeM, an ostensibly Kashmir-focused anti-India organization banned by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf’s in 2002 (though it still operates openly), to bring them again under control and keep them as a future asset, whether it be in Kashmir or against Indian interests in Afghanistan. 

The initial estrangement between Pakistan and jihadist groups like JeM can be traced to the U.S. and NATO-led anti-terror war in Afghanistan and the subsequent U-turn taken by then-Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf after the 9/11 attacks, which spread considerable ill-feelings toward Pakistan among the Taliban, often considered the brainchild of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. Even before the rise of organizations like the TTP, Pakistan had to move to rein in Kashmiri militant groups like JeM and to a lesser extent Lashkar-e-Taiba, who had long been clients of the Pakistani state.

A splinter group of Harkatul Mujahideen, a group fighting Indian forces in Kashmir, JeM was founded by fire brand cleric Maulana Masood Azhar in March 2000 after his release from an Indian prison in exchange for passengers of a hijacked Indian passenger plane. Azhar went underground after the group was declared a terrorist organization and banned.

Although JeM mostly drew support from areas other than the tribal belt and KP, particularly from Punjab, in the initial stages, its fighters shifted to the tribal areas following the ban and continued its activities covertly. And although jihad in Kashmir was always JeM’s stated objective, they have in recent years expanded their operations in Afghanistan and have declared war on the United States.

In a post-American Afghanistan, where Pakistan’s arch-rival India enjoys leverage with much of the Afghan leadership, Pakistani intelligence likely will rely on its old options both with the JeM and other groups, as well as "friendly" elements TTP to turn the tide in its favor and blunt Indian influence. Negotiations with JeM are only one step in negotiating with Pakistan’s erstwhile allies and even some of its stated enemies, who are themselves engaged in a complex game of negotiating possible alliances with the government while dealing with conflict amongst other militants.

For the TTP, leaders like Maulvi Nazeer and Hafiz Gul Bahadur (who, interestingly, may be mediating a dispute between a local warlord and an Afghan Taliban-supported tribe in Khyber agency) in South and North Waziristan and Faqir Muhammad in Bajaur are already in the "pro-Pakistani government" camp. As for the "anti" camp, which includes people like Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistan army has already flushed him out of his safe havens in South Waziristan, but may very well attempt to turn him in the future for use in Afghanistan.

Another strong pro-Pakistan group in the region is the Haqqani network, which focuses on the fight against NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Shi’a-Sunni peace deal in Kurram Agency in early February can be seen, as I have written, as one outcome of Haqqani’s efforts to ensure an easy passage to Afghanistan via Upper Kurram, a Shi’a-populated area, in case of an operation by the Pakistani army in North Waziristan.

One TTP commander, Fazal Saeed, also welcomed the agreement, which works well with TTP efforts to support pro-Pakistan Haqqanis in the region. However, some recent attacks on Shi’as in Lower and Central Kurram point to the enduring presence of some disgruntled elements who do not support the peace process.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the latest of which was carried out on March 26, when eight passengers were killed by armed men, some locals suggest this may be the handiwork of JeM or their supporters, as a means of showing the Pakistani government that peace cannot be achieved in the strategically important tribal areas without JeM.

However, Pakistan’s attempts to reach out to these fringe groups of Taliban and assorted militants may present difficulties for the government, as JeM members and other groups still harbor ill-will towards the government since being banned, and have allegedly played a role in major attacks against the Pakistani state and civilian targets. In the words of a senior Pakistani security official, "there are splinters of splinters," while referring to the "good" and "bad" Taliban and the Pakistani government’s ability to control them.

Indeed, while no one can deny Pakistan’s connection with the Taliban and other groups, both local and foreign, analysts and security officials believe some fighters have escaped the grip of the country’s intelligence services, leading in part to the rash of recent attacks on government installations and even pro-militant figures. Even as Pakistan re-orients its strategy towards militants as part of their planning for Afghanistan’s future, these "splinters" may continue to wreak havoc with the government’s best-laid plans.

Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal.