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Talking to the Pakistani Taliban

History is prologue and previous attempts to negotiate with the TTP do not inspire much optimism

by Khaled Ahmed

Aref Karimi—AFP

Peace talks are ongoing between the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and a state-backed jirga from Pakistan; and they are said to be going well. For those who are doubtful about the process, it would be comforting to know that an “indefinite” ceasefire by the TTP has been announced. Will these talks bear fruit in the form of a permanent cessation of terror attacks on Pakistani citizens, interests and installations? Unlikely, if history is anything to go by.

The TTP story, as revealed in recent books, does not fill one with optimism about the outcome of the ongoing talks. The rapid and relentless rise of post-2001 terrorism in Pakistan is largely attributed to the birth and evolution of the homegrown TTP, Al Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist groups that sneaked into the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The existing jihadi infrastructure in then-FATA and elsewhere harbored and supported them and very soon they started challenging the writ of the state.

Growing fat in FATA

It was not a sudden spike or unforeseen development. Things had been brewing for at least two decades in FATA, in particular, and Pakistan in general. State-sponsored jihadi activities to counter the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan had led to the rise of religious extremism and sectarianism in Pakistan. The jihadi parties formed to augment separatist activities in India-held Kashmir also added to the religious militancy mood. The already-fertile soil became favorable for full-blown terrorist activities after 2001.

There is a history of religious extremism and terrorism in Pakistan: (1) Afghan jihad formed jihadi parties and jihadi culture from 1979 onwards; (2) Indian-sponsored terrorism and sabotage in the 1980s; (3) sectarian terrorism in the late 1980s and (4) the rise of militancy after 2001, involving Al Qaeda, TTP and so on. The main parties involved in sectarianism and jihad were created to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets and to support “freedom-fighters” in India-held Kashmir (IHK). Pakistani religious groups sent thousands of men to fight in the Afghan jihad, with Pakistanis made to believe that it was their religious and moral duty to be sympathetic to these warriors.

Include India and complicate the issue

After the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1988, within four years, Pakistan started losing interest in affairs related to Afghanistan. It increased its focus on Kashmir, and by the mid-1990s, the indigenous uprising, abetted by militants from Pakistan, became quite violent. However, this focus was expected to end soon. After the 9/11 terrorist attack, Pakistan took a U-turn on its Afghanistan and Kashmir policies. Military ruler Pervez Musharraf banned IHK-centric jihadi organizations but no thought was paid to the psychological and physical rehabilitation of the battle-hardened fighters. It not only confused and agitated their ideological frame of mind, but also rendered them jobless. However, the regrouping of Al Qaeda, the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, and the birth of the TTP attracted a number of these elements from Pakistani religious jihadi organizations. Their training, temperament and experience made them very useful for Al Qaeda and TTP.

Then came Indian-sponsored terrorism in Pakistan and the spread of sectarianism and sectarian terrorism. On the one hand, India funded bombings in various cities of Pakistan in retaliation of the alleged involvement of Pakistani agencies in fomenting unrest in India-held Kashmir and Indian East Punjab, where the Sikh struggle for a separate homeland, Khalistan, had taken a serious turn. On the other hand, the sectarian violence also threatened the Islamic state of Pakistan.

Add sectarian poison to the TTP cup

The Sunni sectarian party, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and the Shia party, Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan, resorted to targeted killing of each other’s leaders and activists, as well as attacking seminaries and mosques. In addition to these aspects of violence and militancy in Pakistan, there were diversionary sources of violence such as unrest in Balochistan, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM)-related violence in Karachi and the spell of Indian-sponsored sabotage and terrorism, which were not directly linked with Islamist militancy, but exasperated the overall unruly situation.

Then there was the rise of militancy after 2001. There were several factors that contributed to spurring the insurgency and terrorism to a new climax. The role of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and the nature of both their activities and nexus in Pakistan must also be factored in. It can be seen that, after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and its targeting of Al Qaeda’s hosts and hideouts in Afghanistan, its leaders and activists migrated to Pakistan, which in turn gave birth to the TTP.

Slaves of Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda militants sneaked into Pakistan through the porous Pak-Afghan border and sheltered in its tribal areas. The U.S. noted that FATA had become a key center for planning and preparing operations to attack the U.S. as well as its allies and friends. The main leaders of Al Qaeda settled in the remote areas of Waziristan with the help of local groups. However, under the pressure of Pakistan Army operations, a large number of Al Qaeda leaders and activists relocated to the urban areas of Pakistan. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies soon tracked them and arrested them, which then caused them to flee to the safe haven of Waziristan.

In Waziristan, relentless U.S. drone attacks killed several members of Al Qaeda and dispersed others. Pakistani leader Imran Khan, in 2022, has made the phenomenon of the “enemy drones” a main plank of political discourse in Pakistan, hoping to revive the country’s barely-hidden anti-Americanism and get the still-at-large Islamist terrorists to allow him to secure political support in the north and northwest of the country as well as among the migratory settlements of the Pashtun ethnicity in the south.

After Osama bin Laden

After the death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2011 and many other militant leaders, Al Qaeda’s strength got depleted to a great extent. It remained dispersed but not totally decimated. Its affiliates were well entrenched and continued to wage their insurgencies and carry out terrorism across Pakistan. The militant group also succeeded in establishing contacts with sectarian extremists like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and jihadist parties like Jamaatud Dawa.

The TTP in the tribal areas of Pakistan and elsewhere did not fail to arouse international concern, as the U.S. and the West feared that Al Qaeda elements based on the Pak-Afghan border were lurking behind the TTP and planning another 9/11-like attack. Also, TTP’s activities were detrimental to the operations of the U.S., NATO and international forces in Afghanistan.

TTP’s terrorist outreach

After the TTP’s formal creation in December 2007, its terrorist activities spread to the main cities of Pakistan, including Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Quetta. Suicide bombings and gun and grenade attacks wreaked havoc from 2008 onwards. As a result, more than 65,000 civilians and 7,500 soldiers and security men perished through 2017. The TTP became well-organized and employed all methods and sources, ranging from kidnapping for ransom to foreign-funding, to raise finances for running the organization and to implement its plans.

It hardly needed help in emphasizing an ideology that the state of Pakistan had already popularized. While the Pakistan Army faced up to the TTP, its ideological meshing with the “misguided” TTP presented problems that could not be countered and resolved. The TTP claimed that it had come into being as a reaction to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which chimed with the thinking prevalent in “official” Pakistan. The militants added that they had also taken upon themselves to impose sharia, not only in FATA, but also throughout Pakistan.

Fazlullah phenomenon of Swat

The TTP’s Swat chapter, led by Mullah Fazlullah, was more intractable than its parent organization as it extended its sway across Swat and brazenly challenged the writ of the government. It ruthlessly bombed schools—above all girls’ schools—and beheaded rivals and “criminals.” Ultimately, the Army quelled them and moved them out of their strongholds. However, they could not be eliminated completely.

The TTP’s influence in the province of Punjab led to the phenomenon of the Punjabi Taliban, who did not have a command and control structure as in FATA and Swat but were equally determined and dangerous. They attacked armed forces and their offices and bases. The persistent streak of terrorism jolted the government and the people. In addition to the great loss of lives, the economy of the country suffered as foreign investment dwindled and exports diminished. Moreover, the social and psychological impact on the people and the government was enormous. Fear and mistrust dominated Pakistani society. Lifestyles changed, especially in the urban areas. Barricades and gated residential areas became a common feature in big cities.

Leaning on ‘foreign’ conspiracies

People remained confused and perplexed about the real identity of the perpetrators. They blamed “foreign involvement” for causing this spread of terrorism. Some horrific acts of terrorism finally caused the Army to take effective action against the Swat TTP of Mullah Fazlullah. However, the government was held responsible for not exposing the terrorists in an unequivocal manner. The religious parties, especially those belonging to the Deobandi sect, like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e Islam, hardly ever condemned the clear culprits for their brutal acts. They, instead, often expressed sympathy for them.

From 2007 onwards, suicide-bombing peaked in various cities of Pakistan. Gun and grenade attacks and bomb blasts became common. All sorts of targets, soft and hard, faced an unprecedented onslaught from terrorists. Markets were bombed, military installations were attacked, schools were targeted and several public places faced suicide attacks. It resulted in the death of more than 56,000 people until 2015. The state response to insurgency and terrorism was not effective. In 2002, the Pakistan Army resorted to counter-insurgency operations against terrorist groups in Waziristan and FATA; however, the focus was on Al Qaeda not so much the TTP.

Pak Army finally takes on the TTP

The first Army operation against the TTP was launched against the Swati TTP in 2009. It was successful and the area was cleared of militant elements. However, the group’s main leaders, including chief Maulvi Fazlullah, managed to escape. Shortly afterwards an operation was initiated against the TTP in South Waziristan, continuing until 2012 with mixed results. Many of the militants of the area moved to North Waziristan and started operating from there. Despite the U.S. pressure, the Pakistan Army was reluctant to open another front on a very treacherous terrain. As a result, the militants spread out attacks throughout Pakistan, which could not be controlled by the government.

The disjointed and half-hearted approach of Pakistan to counter these elements was evident from the fact that it could not control or annihilate the TTP, although it was numerically no match for the Pakistan Army. It was equipped with small arms and followed a medieval lifestyle in a remote corner of the country without access to air-power or artillery. It lacked the numerical and military strength to defeat the Pakistani security forces in order to extend its writ to other areas of Pakistan outside their territories. Yet it operated persistently, engaging the Army in an asymmetrical guerrilla war and became a real threat to the country.

No counter-strategy against TTP

Unfortunately, Pakistan eschewed a national counter-terrorism strategy. All provinces and departments acted in a disjointed and erratic manner, which was ineffective to control the outrageous situation. The role of security and intelligence agencies remained much below par. Laws and courts were not prepared to handle terrorism cases. Above all, political will seemed absent. The Army monopolized the situation; the civil government was marginalized and acquiesced to it.

It is not surprising under these circumstances that Pak–U.S. relations in the fight against terrorism remained fraught with mistrust. This sad state of affairs resulted in the differences in their approach and strategy to counter the TTP and Al Qaeda. Doubtlessly, these groups posed a real danger to Pakistan and the world at large and they could not be neutralized due to lack of properly planned and sustained strategies. The combination of TTP and Al Qaeda was lethal and attracted worldwide attention. Had Al Qaeda not been involved, the TTP and its activities, howsoever devastating within Pakistan, would not have bothered the U.S. and the West. Were it not for the TTP, Pakistan would not have considered Al Qaeda a threat to Pakistan, at least in a direct manner.

Religious extremism of our own ideology

Insurgency and terrorism flourished along with religious extremism, which undermined the economy and stability of Pakistan. People were fearful and the world was viewing Pakistan with suspicion, resulting in its international isolation. The state response to the terrorist threat was lackadaisical. This situation affected directly the stability of the state of Pakistan. These elements operating jointly were clearly an existential threat to Pakistan.

Some analysts thought that the TTP would fail after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Others gloated prematurely over the possible splintering of the TTP. Both scenarios were imaginary and unrealistic. This approach of wishful reliance on the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and waiting for Allah to set things right for Pakistan did not suffice. It began to be realized that the TTP and terrorism might not come to an end. All indicators confirm a constant upward trend in religious extremism and radicalization. Pakistan’s ideology undermines the country’s ability to confront the threat faced from TTP.

After its dislocation from Waziristan, the TTP has become more dangerous for Pakistan, organizing terrorist attacks through its recruits with impunity. And its growing proximity with the so-called Islamic State terrorist group remains a palpable threat to the region and beyond.

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