The South Asia Channel

The mirage of peace

Two months ago, Pakistan’s political parties, with support from the powerful military, unanimously passed a resolution to conduct peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). While the new federal government proposed the idea of dialogue with the militant group, the state continues to face the wrath of the insurgency in the form of targeted killings, ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

Two months ago, Pakistan’s political parties, with support from the powerful military, unanimously passed a resolution to conduct peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). While the new federal government proposed the idea of dialogue with the militant group, the state continues to face the wrath of the insurgency in the form of targeted killings, suicide bombings, and other violent incidents. Following the recent death of Hakimullah Mehsud, the former TTP leader, in a U.S. drone strike, many within Pakistan are expecting strong retaliation from the group and security has been beefed up throughout the country.

Outraged by the drone strike, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has called for a review of U.S.-Pakistan relations, stating: "This is not the killing of one person, it is the death of all peace efforts." Ejaz Haider, the editor for national security affairs at a private Pakistani television channel, argues that this reaction is expected, arguing:

The government has made clear its opposition to drone strikes. However, it can’t cherry pick which strikes are good and which are bad. The government had convened the APC [All Party Conference] and initiated talks with the TTP so the outrage is apropos of the timing of the strikes and the fact that it took out the chief of the TTP. This is the real issue at hand. Now even if the talks happen, there will a ramped up effort by the new chief of the TTP to prove his mettle, avenge the killing of Mehsud and mount more attacks.

Fulfilling this prediction, the TTP recently elected a new chief, the hardline commander Mullah Fazlullah, who is notoriously known as Mullah Radio for broadcasting sermons against polio vaccinations and girls’ education, as well as demanding a strict enforcement of shari’a law in Swat. Fazlullah also ordered the attack on Malala Yousafzai last October.

With Fazlullah’s appointment, the TTP has rejected any prospect of peace talks. Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, stated: "There will be no more talks as Mullah Fazlullah is already against negotiations with the Pakistani government." According to him, the Taliban view the peace talks as a U.S-Pakistan deal to sell out Taliban fighters and as nothing more than another "political stunt."

Mounting attacks

In response to Mehsud’s killing and the Taliban’s rejection of talks, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to shelve the reconciliation effort until U.S drone strikes in the country are halted. Given Fazlullah’s brazen threats to the Pakistani military, it is expected that the establishment will back Sharif’s decision. But Taliban threats against the military are not a new phenomenon, and militant attacks have been on the rise since Sharif assumed power in May this year.

Following the initial talks at the APC on September 9, a number of major attacks took place, bringing to light the futility of the government’s decision to negotiate. On September 15, a roadside bomb claimed the lives of Maj Gen Sanaullah Khan Niazi and two other officers. Two weeks later, a bomb placed inside a van carrying 40 Civil Secretariat employees in Peshawar exploded, killing 19 people and injuring 44 others. The TTP proudly claimed responsibility for both attacks.

But the most horrific incident since the APC was the suicide blast outside the All Saints Church in Peshawar on September 22 that took the lives of 85 people and injured 120, the majority of whom were women and children. The Jundallah Group, a faction of the Taliban, readily claimed responsibility for the incident.  However, the TTP later issued a statement painstakingly denying their direct involvement but affirming that the attack was in accordance with shari’a law.

While the attack was one of the largest on Pakistan’s Christian minority group, it was not the first time it had been targeted by the TTP and its allies, nor is it the first time militants have targeted a place of worship. On August 8, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a mosque in Quetta during funeral prayers for a policeman who had been killed the day before.  Thirty people, mostly policemen, were killed and 62 were wounded.

Events such as this, along with the killing of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Law Minister Israrullah Gandapur, have shifted public opinion, specifically in Pakistan’s northwest region. Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party and perhaps the strongest proponent of peace talks, has been publicly called a ‘Taliban apologist," while policy analysts have criticized his dangerously simplistic and naive understanding of critical security issues. Though he remains a key player in Pakistani politics, Khan’s apologetic defense and conspiratorial stance of linking the growing militancy in Pakistan solely to the American intervention in Afghanistan or CIA drone strikes in the region, has dealt a strong blow to the PTI’s support base.

A history of peace talks and negotiations

For now it seems that the Pakistani government has decided to postpone the peace talks as it reviews its overall counterterrorism strategy. The problems with conducting such reconciliation talks are manifold and the Sharif government would be wise to address their shortcomings.

First of all, a dialogue or negotiation is conducted between two equal parties that come to the table with a readiness to compromise and a list of terms on which to negotiate. The militants’ escalation of violence so soon after the government proposed the talks seems to indicate that they have no interest in pursuing such an offer. With the recent election of Fazlullah, a strong opponent of negotiations, peace talks seem even less likely. Furthermore, the TTP lacks a central command structure; instead it is comprised of a number of different factions that operate under one umbrella group, bound by its hostility towards Islamabad. So the real question is, to whom should the state be talking?

Second, the government should, as a pre-requisite, demand a ceasefire from the militants before it begins any negotiations. That said, Pakistan has entered into a number of previous negotiations, both written and verbal, with the militants, only to see those peace agreements be violated constantly.

In April 2004, for example, after launching an ineffective military operation to pressure Pashtun military leader Nek Mohammad to cease his support for foreign militants, the Pakistani government si
gned the first of three peace agreements in North and South Waziristan. Despite the agreement, Mohammad refused to surrender foreign militants, and attacks on government supporters and security forces continued.

Then, in February 2005, the government signed the Sararogha Accord with leading militant and future TTP leader, Baitullah Mehsud, which stated that the Pakistan military would compensate militants for any damage the soldiers had caused and that, in return, the militants would stop attacking Pakistani targets. However, the accord was quickly broken. A ceasefire was again announced in May 2006, but the infamous "North Waziristan Agreement" that was signed in September that year allowed the existing militant groups to expand and reorganize.

In May 2008, the Pakistani government signed a peace accord with Fazlullah himself. The terms required Fazlullah to support the government’s efforts to establish law and order in the area and to denounce terrorist activities. In return, the government dropped its criminal charges against him. However, his militant Swat Taliban faction violated the agreement by attacking security forces and strictly enforcing shari’a law. The subsequent breakdown of the peace accord led to the Rah-e-Haq military operation in Swat, where the Pakistan army largely emerged successful.

But despite that success, throughout 2008, Taliban militants re-entered Swat and engaged in battles with security forces. By 2009, the TTP had regained control of 80 percent of the area. Pakistan’s security forces ended their subsequent offensives when the provincial government signed the Swat Agreement with Fazlullah and released Taliban leaders in exchange for the group halting its attacks on the military.

In April 2009, President Asif Ali Zardari’s government signed an ordinance, dubbed the Nizam-e-Adl (System of Justice), allowing the implementation of shari’a law in Malakand, in return for halting violence. With the armed forces effectively abandoning the area, the TTP was granted de facto control over the area, interpreting the ordinance as a formal acquiescence by the Pakistani government to their ruthless rule. However, within days, the Swat Taliban tried to expand their control to the neighboring district of Buner, and violence against civilians and the military spiked. Emboldened by the government’s policy of appeasement, the Taliban occupied the Swat district’s largest city, Mingora, in May 2009, and advanced up to 60 miles away from Islamabad. This advancement prompted a strong military operation that ended with the Pakistani Army regaining control of Mingora, forcing Fazlullah to flee from the Swat Valley, and capturing or killing a number of Taliban commanders. Though the situation in the area remains precarious four years later, many claim it is far better than its darkest days.

Ejaz Haider argues that: "The notion that the state has never talked is factually incorrect. There have been a number of major and local agreements, some of which have failed and some that are ongoing. The issue of talking is not a wrong policy. The real issue is whether the state is sending signals of strength or weakness. With the APC, it seems to be the latter."

Third, and perhaps most troubling, is the fact that a militant group which rejects the Pakistani constitution, ruthlessly murders innocent civilians, and brazenly targets Pakistan’s security forces is dictating the terms of the peace process. Zahid Hussain, author of The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan, warns that "the Taliban terms are very clear. They have dictated exactly what they want. The unconditional talks are a bad idea. A move such as this dangerously legitimizes militancy and terrorism," thus providing more room for the Taliban to exploit any peace negotiation.

A jeopardized peace process

Policy analysts have begun criticizing the government’s halt of the peace talks in reaction to Mehsud’s death, arguing that if that if the violence was a determining factor, they should also have been halted when Niazi was killed or when countless innocent Pakistanis were butchered at the hands of the TTP.

Since 2003, close to 17,911 Pakistani civilians have been killed in terrorism-related violence. While Khan claims that the war in which Pakistan currently finds itself embroiled is "America’s war," the truth is that escalating attacks against minority groups and innocent civilians on military bases, near places of worship, and in crowded urban areas have transformed it into Pakistan’s war; one which must be fought against a breed of elusive and ruthless militants.

And this militancy is no longer confined to Pakistan’s tribal areas, to be dealt with solely by Pakistan’s military forces. The war has permeated Pakistan’s villages, towns, urban centers, and mindsets. Haider notes: "In urban centers, police forces, along with specialized counterterrorism police units, are required to address mounting terrorist attacks. However, the state has had a stunted response to militancy. The state wants to talk, thinking it can achieve desired results where fighting has not been successful. That is incorrect."

Truly fighting this militancy requires not only army action, but also comprehensive political will. While the Taliban has remained clear, consistent, and adamant in their demands, the government has failed to create a consistent and unified political discourse against terrorism that counters the powerful militant narrative. Some analysts claim that Pakistani authorities are only too aware of how imperative a stable Afghanistan is to Pakistan’s future. By brokering a peace deal with the TTP beforehand, Pakistan may be able to prevent any internal security distractions as it focuses on a post-2014 Afghanistan. Hussain argues that: "Ambivalence has made the government weak. The state has failed to take a decision. The Taliban, on the other hand, are buying time and regaining lost ground," yet all the while tightening the noose around the Pakistani leadership.

As has been seen in the past, despite the government entering into a number of peace agreements with and conducting a handful of military operations against the militants, conducting a reconciliation dialogue from a position of weakness has strengthened the TTP and allowed it to challenge the state. The sad reality of the entire exercise is that the TTP will not lose much if the talks don’t take place. The Pakistani state, on the other hand, has already put too much at stake.

Arsla Jawaid is a journalist and Associate Editor of the monthly foreign policy magazine, SouthAsia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations, with a focus on foreign policy and security studies
, from Boston University and can be followed on Twitter @arslajawaid.

Arsla Jawaid is the former Managing Editor at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad (ISSI). She is currently pursuing an M.A. degree in International Affairs at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter: @arslajawaid. Twitter: @arslajawaid

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