BACKGROUND: When President Musharraf abandoned the Taliban in Afghanistan and decided to side with the U.S. in the war on terror, he was expecting a domestic backlash especially from the religious parties and the madrassa network in Pakistan. The initial reaction was vocal yet limited. The Red Mosque clerics who had close links with Al-Qaida and the Taliban initiated a movement to convert Pakistan into an Islamic emirate and the state crushed the rebellion. This event was used by the militants based in the tribal areas under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud to unite under the banner of the TTP in South Waziristan in December 2007.
It is widely believed that TTP was a branch of the Taliban of Afghanistan and Baituallah Mehsud on a number of occasions claimed that he has the full support of Mullah Omar, something the Afghan Taliban have repeatedly denied. TTP is mainly a Mehsud dominated militia. In August 2009, Baitullah was killed in a drone attack and Hakimullah Mehsud, a confidant of Baitullah and TTP commander for Khyber, Kurram and Orakzai became the Amir (leader). Over the years, TTP conducted terrorist attacks in Pakistan resulting in more than 40,000 deaths.
TTP finances its activities with ransom money, bank robberies, forced taxes and drug trade. It fights factional wars with other militants groups and has killed a number of militant leaders. Muslim Khan, alias Shah Khalid, and Haji Namdar are cases in point. A number of TTP members belong to mainland Pakistani groups and splinters or breakaway factions from Kashmiri groups and are known as the Punjabi Taliban. Islamabad has attempted to negotiate peace with the TTP in the past: peace agreements in Shakai 2004, Sararogha 2005, North Waziristan 2006, and Swat 2008 all failed.
The Muslim League under Sharif and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf have been major critics of this war, claiming that it is not Pakistan’s war but that it has been imposed on it by the U.S.. Sharif called an All Parties conference in September in which the Pakistani political leadership unanimously decided to initiate a dialogue with the TTP. No concrete progress has yet been made in this regard, while Mehsud’s death on November 1 and the appointment of Fazlullah as the TTP’s new chief likely implies that the dialogue process has failed even before it started. The political leadership, including the government and opposition parties, stated that the drone attack was intentionally conducted at this time to sabotage the peace process.
IMPLICATIONS: Although Sharif’s administration has publicized its dialogue with TTP extensively, there is hardly any indication that the process moved beyond statements. TTP responded guardedly and set a number of preconditions for talks: the release of all TTP prisoners, a withdrawal of Pakistan’s Army from the tribal areas, and an end to drone attacks. At the same time, TTP refused to stop its own attacks. On September 15, TTP killed the Malakand division commander, Major General Sanaullah Niazi, followed by an attack on a church during a Sunday service, which was among the deadliest attacks on Christians in the country’s history.
A number of voices were raised about the viability of dialogue if the attacks did not stop. Khan, on the other hand, accused Islamabad of cold feet and announced that his party will start negotiations with TTP, if the center does not. The timing of the strike against Mehsud overshadowed the whole debate regarding his death, Pakistan-U.S. relations, and the possibility of a peace process between Islamabad and TTP.
Khan alleged that the U.S. had deliberately chosen this time for the attack in order to prevent peace in Pakistan. Pakistan’s interior minister voiced a similar opinion during a speech in the parliament. He stated that the process between Islamabad and TTP was moving ahead and a delegation was about to leave to meet Mehsud and other TTP leaders when the strike took place. According to him, the Americans destroyed the whole peace process.
However, TTP sources denied any progress whatsoever and any knowledge of a delegation from Islamabad. After intense debate, TTP chose Fazalullah, aka Mullah Radio, who had been hiding in Afghanistan since the successful Swat operation and who was behind General Sanaullah’s murder, as their new leader.
This development holds three important implications: First, TTP will take a tough stance in the days ahead as the Fazlullah faction was staunchly against any dialogue; second, TTP is moving away from its Mehsud identity. However, whether this is an organizational reorientation or just a reaction to Mehsud's death is yet to be seen; third, TTP is experiencing internal divisions, reconfirming the previously known competition between the Sajna group and the Fazlullah group.
Fazlullah’s appointment is a clear signal to Islamabad that no dialogue is possible. However, Islamabad still believes that it can engage in successful and meaningful dialogue with TTP and has indicated its intention to go ahead with the talks. The primary reason for this is the lack of understanding and consensus in Pakistan over its war on terror. After almost 12 years, Pakistanis are still not sure about their involvement in this war.
Sharif, Khan, and the great majority of Pakistan’s opinion makers continue to believe that this is not their war and that it was imposed on them by the U.S. when it attacked and occupied Afghanistan. Regarding TTP, they believe it is a reaction against Pakistan’s support for the U.S. against the Taliban in Afghanistan. As regards those elements in TTP and other groups who attack the state and its citizens, they are described as foreign agents on the payroll of Israel’s Mossad, India’s RAW, and the CIA. This belief indicates a complete lack of understanding of the jihadist mindset.
While Islamabad’s desire to engage in dialogue is not problematic per se, doing it without a clear understanding of the aims and objectives of the other side as well as its own desired outcomes, how to achieve them, and how far it is willing to go is not a recipe for success.
At present, it seems that Islamabad has much homework to do before embarking on this path, although it remains highly uncertain whether a dialogue will actually happen. This policy will have domestic (sectarianism, influence of religious parties), regional (India, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran) and global (U.S., NATO) implications for Islamabad. How much of work has been done to address these implications remains unknown.
CONCLUSIONS: Although Islamabad still intends to go ahead with its policy of dialogue with TTP, the appointment of Mullah Fazlullah, who escaped to Afghanistan after the Swat operation, as the new TTP leader is a clear signal that TTP will take a tough position against Pakistan in the days ahead. Islamabad needs to understand that a dialogue process is a two-way street influenced by a number of factors, of which the timing of the dialogue and the ripeness of the issue for resolution is most important. Local, regional and international dynamics and environments also play an important role. Islamabad needs to have a clear understanding of the jihadist mindset and formulate a comprehensive antiterrorism policy before deciding the course. Without such preparations, there is no point in talking to TTP.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Rizwan Zeb is an associate editor of the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs (to be launched in 2014 by Sage) and is based at the Center for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia. He recently guest edited a special issue of the Journal of South Asian Development on “Afghanistan and the Region: Post 2014”.