Is Pakistan Talking With the Pakistani Taliban?

Despite failed negotiations in the past, the Pakistani government may be trying to talk with the insurgents again.

If the news reports from Pakistan are true, the Pakistani government is intimately involved in peace overtures with at least one faction of the Tehrik i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban.

The claim, only a rumor when it first came out, was reinforced when Faqir Mohammed, a senior TTP leader in the Bajaur tribal agency, spoke out to confirm that his fighters are talking with Islamabad in a bid to pacify his region. In fact, based on his statements, the discussions with the Pakistani government are going so well that a peace agreement may be signed between the two in short order.

“Our talks with the government are going in the right direction,” he said.

If we succeed in signing a peace agreement in Bajaur, then the Taliban in other places such as Swat, Mohmand, Orakzai, Darra Adamkhel, Kurram and South Waziristan tribal regions will also ink peace accords with the government in their respective areas. Bajaur will be a role model for other areas and if our talks prove fruitful, the same formula will be applied in all other areas where the Taliban are fighting against the government and its armed forces.

Reports of a peace deal come at a tumultuous time in Pakistan’s history. The country’s strategic relationship with the United States is at its lowest point since former President General Pervez Musharraf agreed to align the Pakistani armed forces to Washington after the 9/11 attacks over a decade ago.

The civilian government in Islamabad, historically weak in comparison to the Muslim nation’s military and intelligence services, is limping along as it faces criticisms from all sides, including but certainly not limited to the generals that control Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.

Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan’s president, has just returned home after being out for nearly two weeks with heart problems, prompting speculation that the military command was taking preparatory steps to either replace him with a politician more friendly to the army or take power themselves.

With violence in Afghanistan continuing, Pakistani military officials have been bombarded with complaints and accusations from Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government, which has argued that Islamabad is unable or unwilling to aggressively pursue Afghan Taliban bases on its soil.

Preliminary Pakistani-TTP negotiations will do nothing to dispel those accusations, particularly when Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network fighters continue to stream into eastern Afghanistan from their shelters in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The United States is already worried about the possibility of these talks succeeding and President Karzai will clearly not support any effort that weakens the pressure on militants next door.

Pakistan, however, does not seem too concerned about what its neighbors and patrons think. Negotiations with militants who have made it their life’s duty to perform jihad against the Pakistani state have happened many times before so the notion that today’s peace feelers are unprecedented is not supported by the record.

Pakistani militant outfits operating in the South Waziristan tribal region, at least before the 2009 Pakistani military offensive, were often dealt with through a series of quid pro quos — in exchange (PDF) for militants halting attacks on Pakistani institutions and soldiers, the government would allow the groups to operate with relative impunity in the areas of control. The implementation of Taliban justice and Islamic law was allowed, as long as these militant organizations directed their armed attacks across the border in Afghanistan.

The arrangements with the TTP have not had a clear positive effect for the Pakistanis. On the one hand, those deals have allowed the government to cut short a fighting campaign that was proving to be too much to handle for Pakistani soldiers. Yet at the same time, the peace has given militants in the tribal regions an opportunity to reconstitute their fighters, rebuild their ranks and training camps, and expand their influence in districts that were previously free from the Taliban’s grasp.

It is in this context that the Pakistan-TTP negotiations are occurring, if they are occurring at all. A Taliban spokrsman has denied that any such talks are taking place, as has Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani. But if Pakistan’s diplomatic history with insurgent groups is any guide, a peaceful outreach is not out of the question. In the minds of Pakistan’s generals and politicians, it will seem better to give peace a chance by pushing the Taliban’s focus toward Afghanistan than pursue an exclusive military campaign against them which would surely result in TTP suicide bombings in Pakistani cities as retaliation.

Compounded by a NATO airstrike that killed 24 of its soldiers, Pakistan now has an even greater incentive to ignore Washington’s complaints and forge its own way of getting the violence in Pakistan down — even if that way has not held up for more than a few months.

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