From Battleground to Table: Can Pakistan-TTP Talks Work?
There are signals that Pakistan’s government is moving toward peace talks with at least ome segments of the Pakistani Taliban. In an interview with TRT World, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said, “We are in talks with some of the groups on a reconciliation process.” The latest developments regarding the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) announcing a ceasefire and a senior militant commander giving up his arms, are positive moves toward peace and stability.
The policy circles in Pakistan are in constant debate, with op-eds and editorials debating the merits of talking with the TTP. Before reaching a black-and-white judgment, first we need to understand few basic points. What does negotiating peace and amnesty mean, and how it will be granted? What should be the terms and conditions? Finally, what is the history of government-TTP talks?
For some time now, Pakistan has been in talks with some splinter groups within the umbrella of the TTP about laying down their arms and stopping violence against the state. To show their seriousness toward the peace process, the Shura (advisory body) of the TTP in North Waziristan announced a 20-day ceasefire at the start of this month. If the peace process goes well, the ceasefire may be extended.
It is significant to mention here, though, that previous peace agreements with the TTP failed to restore peace in the regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Major peace agreements in the past include the Shakai Agreement in 2004, Sararogha Agreement in 2005, Miranshah Agreement in 2006, and Swat Peace Agreement in 2009.
Due to the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, several TTP leaders and militants took sanctuary in Afghanistan when military operations were conducted by Pakistani forces. After the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, the war started to seep into Pakistan across the border. Nearly 83,000 Pakistanis have been killed since the war started. Among them nearly 9,000 soldiers died fighting the militants.
Over the years, Pakistan armed forces scored impressive successes against the terror groups, tearing down their network and thus limiting attacks in the country. Two main military offensives, Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014 and Operation Radd-ul-fasaad in 2017 broke the backbone of the TTP and other militant networks in Pakistan. Just recently, security forces conducted an intelligence-based operation in Tank, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing a TTP commander Khawaza din alias Sher Khan.
While military operations have seen success, they have not provided a lasting solution. Pakistan cannot just keep on fighting the TTP forever; the government needs to devise a working strategy to counter this issue. Peace talks will necessarily be part of that strategy.
However, many people are making wrong assumptions about peace talks. With that in mind, let’s clarify what peace talks do not mean.
Peace talks do not mean the state is weak or unable to fight with militants or that the state will not pursue the terrorist threat, both external and internal. Talks do not imply that the state will give blanket amnesty to all terrorists and militants or that the state will mainstream or normalize the militants. Reaching a peace agreement does not mean that the state will dishonor those killed by militants (both civilians and uniformed personnel).
In any conflict, military power is but one tool. To achieve complete triumph, all instruments must be used. Pakistan used its military strength for years and it will continue to do so if needed, but due to an unending conflict there is exhaustion, at both the physical and psychological levels. Thousands of soldiers, paramilitary troops, and police officers have died; maybe it is time to give negotiations a chance.
In my previous research on the combat experiences of Pakistani soldiers, I mentioned that the “Army is just an instrument, and all the instruments should be used to completely solve this problem.” The armed forces are always there to fight – there is no unwillingness to sacrifice and the security forces have proved that they are up to the task – but there should be a political effort to solve the problem of militancy as well. Fighting will not bring lasting peace.
Moreover, these kinds of negotiations have been successful in the past as well. In 2017, around 500 Baloch militants abandoned violence and surrendered to the state authorities. This was a great step in mainstreaming the youth who had become entangled in violence against the state and civilians alike.
Now is an opportune moment to try. Since coming into power, the Afghan Taliban have reassured Pakistan that they will not allow Afghanistan’s land to be used by TTP. Somehow, for the last 15 years, this kind of assurance never came from the Afghan government, nor was any action was taken against the TTP, who enjoyed immense support and sanctuaries throughout the border region. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, TTP militants might not enjoy the support they used to have. Based on the strong assurances from Afghan Taliban, the situation seems to be in favor of Pakistan, which bodes well for peace talks.
Pakistan reclaimed the troubled tribal areas through military operations first, followed by a reconstruction and rebuilding processes. We need to devise a strategy now to deal with the TTP; otherwise, they may hide in sleeper cells for the time being, only to regroup and cause trouble later on. Furthermore, if Pakistan’s western border is at peace, the government can focus its attention on curbing and managing the ethno-nationalist movements in Pakistan, which are a nuisance turning into fault-lines.
Prerequisites of Reconciliation
What should be the prerequisites of giving amnesty or negotiating peace?
First and foremost, the state needs to undertake a process of consensus involving the entire nation before making a framework for peace and negotiations. Previously, it was believed that dialogue could not create a path to peace because the TTP is against the idea of a Pakistani state, and thus will always present a threat to national sovereignty. As a prerequisite for any peace deal, the militant group needs to surrender, disarm, and accept the writ of the state. All those involved should be tried and punished as per the law and terms of surrender. There is no second thought about this.
In the current peace process, it should be made clear which branch of the TTP is surrendering. The TTP is divided into several factions, so a peace deal with one group will not guarantee the intentions of the rest of the militants. Indeed, a splinter group may try to sabotage peace efforts by attacking Pakistani armed forces and civilians.
The next step will involve the foot soldiers or recruits. They need to be isolated under the protective custody of their tribes, and contact between foot soldiers and the TTP leadership should be discouraged. That link needs to be broken. Longer term, the state needs to disband and dismantle the sources of funding for these groups, and it will not be an easy task because of the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
While giving time to peace talks, security agencies should also be on alert, as these militants groups have a history of going back on their word. The negotiations should be without any conditions, as the TTP is not in any position to dictate any conditions for peace; they have to lay down their arms and abide by the constitution of Pakistan.
War is not easy and cannot be maintained forever; uniformed personnel die every day and it’s a constant burden on the economy. The current peace talks definitely won’t guarantee a total peace but may pave a path for such a future. It’s time to give peace a chance. As long as proper vigilance is maintained, there is nothing to lose.
The TTP has the blood of thousands of innocent Pakistanis on its hands, so it will not be an easy task to gather public support for peace talks. There will be resentment among the people, but Pakistan cannot keep on fighting indefinitely. The most important step is to observe the behavior of the TTP before announcing any amnesty; otherwise it will be counterproductive for the entire peace plan.
After years of economic upheavals, instability, and crisis, Pakistan needs to breathe in some peace, so that it can focus on the looming economic crisis and emerging challenges. Peace talks and dialogue are important parts of any path to lasting peace and stability. To achieve any progress, the political and military leadership need to work together in order to completely defeat militancy in Pakistan. No state can afford a parallel system or a persistent militant presence. A comprehensive strategy that combines political and military means to solve the problem is the need of the hour.