Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in June this year declared an indefinite ceasefire to facilitate peace talks being brokered by the Afghan Taliban. But there have been regular clashes between TTP and Pakistan security forces since then, despite both sides confirming that the truce is still on. Recently, questions were raised over the fate of peace talks after some media publications reported that armed militants had returned to their former stronghold in Swat, Dir, and parts of the tribal districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Also, recently the Pakistan army said that five soldiers and at least four fighters were killed in an encounter when security forces raided a hideout in Boyya, North Waziristan. TTP confirmed the clash and accused the government of bad faith, saying troops had attacked them in six districts recently, including Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Whether or not the negotiations progress, an imminent escalation of violence appears most likely. It has the potential of spreading from the frontier into the urban areas, particularly given the fragile political and economic situation in the country.
Also, in the long term, there are not many bright prospects for peace talks. The main sticking points are demands by the TTP to reverse FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province; imposition of Sharia law in the area, and the withdrawal of Pakistan’s military forces from the border region. These main demands of TTP are next to impossible to be fulfilled by the Pakistani deep state. Not only has the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan emboldened the TTP, once one of the world’s most deadly terror groups, to intensify its insurgency against Islamabad. But it has also given it the confidence to expect a more deferential treatment from Islamabad that parallels that of the US toward the Afghan Taliban. Hence its highly unlikely that TTP will negotiate on any of its core demands. The Pakistani Taliban is trying to portray itself politically on the same lines as that of the Afghan Taliban but is essentially anti-Pakistan in its stance. The outfit has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the Durand Line in this they are getting tacit support from the Afghan Taliban.
The alignment of interests between the Afghan Taliban and TTP goes deeper. As both the Afghan Taliban and TTP are Pashtun. It is thus alarming that at the same time the Afghan Taliban continues to challenge Pakistani territorial integrity by rejecting the Durand Line. The TTP is concurrently pressing for a reversal to the merger of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Together, these efforts could bring the idea of a mostly Pashtun-inhabited tribal borderland with a potential associated separatist movement into the mainstream.
Another source of the TTP’s aggressive stance is the perceived weakness of its opponent, i.e., the Pakistani State, which has been experiencing high levels of socioeconomic and political instability. Mired in their own set of domestic problems, the Pakistani government and military officials come across as beleaguered, desperate for a peace deal to curtail violence. This perception is evident from the tones taken by the TTP’s chief, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, and spokesperson Muhammad Khurasani in their public statements since last October when these negotiations became public. For example, the TTP attributes the country’s problems of inflation and taxes, rising ethnic division, and government mismanagement of natural calamities to the “State cruel policies”, the corrupt practices of its civil and military leaders, and a lack of Sharia implementation.
The TTP’s links with transnational jihadi networks plus its demands to retain control of its weapons and de-merge FATA from KP, strongly suggests that the group intends to use the peace process to gain control of its old stronghold not only as a sanctuary for its allies but also as a launch base for its new war on the State. In the past Afghan Taliban leaders like Mullah Umar and Sirajuddin Haqqani had repeatedly attempted to convince the TTP to focus on the Afghan Jihad and not to attack Pakistan. But these initiatives had always been futile because waging of the Jihad against Pakistan forms the basis for TTP’s separate identity. These negotiations are most likely to be unproductive because the core of TTP has shown no indication of wanting to seek a peaceful resolution or of renouncing violence. The difficulties of negotiating a settlement with the TTP include not only its chequered history of violating previous agreements, such as the Malakand Accord but also its fragmented nature. Peace negotiations often fail to work with a fragmented organization, because competing factions within the group will feel threatened if any political deal empowers their rivals. The TTP is not internally cohesive like the Afghan Taliban. And power struggles within different factions can result in heightened and prolonged violence as they will engage in outbidding and fratricidal violence. Internal competition can also result in defections, and in the TTP’s case, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) has been and may continue to be an attractive alternative.
It’s a matter of fact that still, TTP is the largest militant organization in Pakistan. They may not be able to control large swaths of territory in tribal areas as they used to do till 2014. But certainly, it can launch a new wave of terrorist attacks across Pakistan if not checked in time. The real operational strengths of the Pakistani Taliban are its affiliates and support networks, which still exist and are thriving inside Pakistan. The TTP, unlike the Afghan Taliban, has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US. The TTP is closer to the global jihadist agenda of targeting the far enemy. Pakistan needs to realise that to address the threat emerging from TTP a multidimensional approach is required that goes beyond kinetic operations. In addition to building up military pressure on the TTP. Much effort and many resources need to be poured into countering violent extremism measures, deradicalization programmes, and the potential reintegration of combatants in TTP-affected regions.