Dr Huma Baqai

03rd Jul, 2022. 10:15 am

The honeymoon is over

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been fighting the state of Pakistan for over a decade now. The conflict is over TTP Pakistan’s desire to impose its ultra-hard line interpretation on the regions it has influence and control over, largely along the border with Afghanistan and beyond. This mountainous area has served as a linchpin of militant activity. The militants have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship both with the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani establishment. The relationship with the Pakistani establishment underwent a paradigm shift post a dramatic change of ground realities. Interestingly, since the takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban the TTP has stepped up its attacks on Pakistan’s side of the border, killing dozens of soldiers and civilians in 2021. For Pakistan this was a rude shock. There is a long history of breached truces between TTP and the state of Pakistan. They usually use these pauses as breathing spaces to unite, reinvigorate, and attack more mercilessly.

According to Amira Jadoon, Faculty at the US Military Academy at WestPoint, “the links between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban date back to 11 September 2001 attacks in the US and the fall of the first Taliban government in Afghanistan later the same year.” The TTP was founded in 2007 after a crackdown by Pakistan military on their hubs in Islamabad.

Post-TTP’s rampage against the Pakistani state, the army retaliated with force and subsequently, since 2015, the TTP leadership was forced to find refuge in Afghanistan. However it continues to carry on low and high intensity warfare against Pakistan.

Pakistan was ideally seeking an end to the TTP’s 14-year insurgency after the Afghan Taliban returned to power in August last year. The Afghan Taliban, despite their commitment to rein in groups like the TTP, have refused to take the TTP head-on. In fact, they are pushing for a peace deal. The peace deal is seen by them as a win-win situation. It would reduce the pressure they face from Pakistan and also prevent the TTP joining forces with ISIS, which are still resisting the Afghan Taliban tooth and nail. Thus, the Afghan’s Taliban return to power has not eased the situation for Islamabad. The attacks have only gone up especially along the border with Afghanistan. Approximately 119 Pakistani soldiers and hundreds of civilians have been killed in a surge of TTP attacks between August 2021 and March 2022.

The Afghan Taliban have been pushing for talks with the TTP to ease out the pressure from Pakistan to halt cross-border attacks. Imtiaz Gul, a senior Pakistani analyst, said Islamabad had demanded firm action from the Taliban in Kabul to prevent TTP fighters from using Afghan territory to stage cross-border attacks against Pakistan, even threatening counterattacks into Afghanistan and “pursuit by Pakistani security forces…. these talks are the result of Pakistan’s highest-level tough messages, which were conveyed to the Afghan Taliban” following a surge in TTP’s cross-border attacks on Pakistani troops, he further added.

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The TTP first announced a ceasefire until May 30 which has now been extended indefinitely. It is reported that Pakistan has sent a 13-member delegation of Islamic clerics to negotiate with the TTP. These talks are being brokered by the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. The acting Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is the key facilitator.

Pakistan rightly demands that TTP must function under Pakistan’s constitution. However, the demand of TTP is to restore FATA’s old status. TTP also refuses to disarm despite a peace deal. They are also seeking the withdrawal of security forces from the erstwhile tribal areas.

The history of peace agreements with the TTP is not pretty. Many question the logic of going into talks with them at all. In 2009 also, Pakistan had signed a similar agreement with the TTP that gave them the leverage to implement Sharia law in the Swat Valley in KPK; it ended in bloodshed and prolonged skirmishes that killed thousands and displaced millions.

The timing of their re-emergence is critical. It coincides with the Baloch militant group’s revived ability to attack Pakistan’s main urban centres, including Lahore and Karachi and now specifically targeting Chinese personnel. TTP’s behaviour and their convergence and collaboration with Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) is very damaging for Pakistan.

It’s almost like the honeymoon with Afghan Taliban in power is over for Pakistan. The initial euphoria is being replaced by harsh ground realities of the Afghan Taliban siding with and protecting TTP Pakistan and cultivating India; both have come as a rude shock. A senior ANP leader is of the view that the TTP is no doubt aware of Pakistan’s precarious situation, which has allowed it to negotiate from a position of strength. The TTP will, therefore, seek to expand “beyond its area of jurisdiction.” These negotiations are not going to be a piece of cake for Pakistan. Moreover, the political leadership has shunned to comment on it, but is largely against it.

On the other front, on June 2, a high-level delegation of Indian officials met with the Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul. It is the first official visit by Indian officials post-Afghan Taliban takeover in August 2021. New Delhi had shut down all its operations in Kabul. It is now once again all set to send “a very limited number of junior officials, mainly to oversee consular matters and the distribution of humanitarian aid,” according to Hindustan Times.

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Overall, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has downplayed the visit of its senior diplomats and ruled out recognizing the Taliban or reopening its embassy. But official sources in Islamabad believe that the visit was much more than about humanitarian assistance as portrayed by India. As per reports in the media, another official said that Pakistan has no problem with India establishing a relationship with the Taliban as long as it does not undermine the country’s interest. More importantly, an official of the foreign office elaborated further and said, “reopening the embassy is not an issue, but there is no reason for Indian consulates along the border regions of Pakistan.”

More interestingly, the acting minister of Defense Mullah Yaqub of the Afghan government commented on India saying that the Afghan Taliban want to establish strong diplomatic relations with all countries including India. “When we will together have cordial political and diplomatic relations, then only we would be ready for defence relations. Neither there will be any problem with it, nor do we see any issue with it.” Some element of appeasement for Pakistan was thrown in where he also said, “We will not allow Pakistan to use Afghanistan’s soil against India and we will not allow India to use Afghanistan’s soil against Pakistan.” The situation on the ground is not entirely supportive of this statement. The uptick in attacks on Pakistan from Afghanistan have only gone up. The TTP has continued its aggression in 2022, killing almost 100 Pakistani soldiers until March 2022.

Pakistan has furnished more than once tangible evidence of India using Afghan soil to undermine its security. India’s RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) had been involved in terrorist activities against Pakistan. India not only trains the TTP, but also supports it by providing arms and immunities against Pakistan. The TTP has also targeted Chinese personnel and interests in Pakistan as a proxy for India.

Post the initial shock of Afghan Taliban gaining control of Afghanistan and the unceremonial demise of the Northern Alliance who both India and the US so relentlessly supported for two decades, India is now coming to terms with the new ground realities and is gearing up to work with them. This small first step is the beginning of India trying to get back into the game. The Afghan Taliban do not seem to be averse to the idea, in fact they have welcomed it.

 

The writer is a Rector MiTE

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