Negotiating with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is not just dealing with one entity but with a hydra-headed monster

Few expected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to give the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan another chance for a dialogue. At the end of his 20-minute speech in the National Assembly on January 29, when Mr. Sharif made his fateful announcement and appointed a four-member committee to further the peace process, there was more shock than awe. Even after the mandate of the All Parties Conference (APC) in September 2013 which favoured dialogue to settle the issue of terrorism, the process was flailing to say the least. And almost every single day after Mr. Sharif’s announcement, the country has been wracked by terror strikes in some form or the other.

The admission of the Mohmand Agency faction of the TTP that it executed 23 security personnel in its custody was the last straw. The two committees entrusted with peace negotiations — one appointed by the government and the other by the TTP were at a stand-off over the issue of ceasefire, and any kind of a peaceful settlement seemed distant. Since then, in fast-paced developments, the TTP first called a month-long ceasefire on March 1, urging all its factions to stick to it, following which the interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, called a halt to the air strikes taking place almost everyday in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency, which were reportedly killing dozens of terrorists.

While analysts believe that the air strikes softened the TTP stand and their offer of ceasefire must be treated with caution, there is a thaw in the dialogue process. How far this will take the government to any reasonable achievement is a big question.

This week, the government has gone a step further by replacing its committee with three bureaucrats apart from Rustom Shah Mohmand and the TTP nominees have travelled once again to meet the Taliban shura in Waziristan. Much ado was also made about Mr. Sharif’s visit to the hilltop residence of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan who endorsed the peace process.

Attacks by the TTP

The Mohmand TTP’s admission was not the first by the Taliban after Mr. Sharif’s peace offering. Its Peshawar faction brazenly admitted to the attack on a hotel frequented by Shias, and even displayed the terrorist Mast Gul, well known to Indians as the person responsible for the siege in Chrar-e-Sharif in 1995. The TTP also claimed responsibility for the bombing of a bus in Karachi on February 13 which killed 13 policemen. As terrorist hideouts were being bombed in North Waziristan on February 19, security officials were quick to point out that since the APC, 460 people have been killed in terror strikes and 1264 people have been injured.

The government tabled its long-awaited National Internal Security Policy in the National Assembly at the end of February and clarified that it was carrying out no planned operation but only surgical strikes, amid confusion that the military was going in for the kill. While the dialogue was on hold, the interior minister said that the armed forces had the right to self-defence and surgical strikes would be perfectly in order.

But on March 3, terror struck in the heart of Islamabad when the district and sessions court was torn apart in a suicide attack which killed 12 people, including an additional sessions judge. The interior minister sparked off a fresh controversy stating that the judge was killed by his own guard who, on panicking after hearing the blast, pulled the trigger of his 9 mm pistol. Faced with mounting criticism and pressure to opt for a military operation, the government has persisted with dialogue, separating the good Taliban from the bad.

Operation no solution

The government knows, based on bitter past experiences, that an operation may not resolve the terror challenge. Right from 2004 when it has been trying to make peace with the militants, it has come a cropper.

The government’s detractors say it is not negotiating from a position of strength and there is confusion over the strategy being used to deal with the TTP. Making another appearance in the National Assembly, Mr. Sharif dispelled all confusion and made it clear that talks and terror strikes cannot go hand in hand. This has been reiterated time and again by various ministers and even the two committees preparing the ground for a dialogue. However, negotiating with the TTP is not just dealing with one entity but a hydra- headed monster.

Successive governments have followed the same route — they have negotiated at first and even drawn up agreements as in the case of Swat, but have finally called the military as the Taliban showed no signs of backing down from its avowed aim of armed militancy and brutality. It is also becoming clear with the continuing terror attacks such as the one in Peshawar on March 14 that the TTP could have dissident factions which are not keen on any dialogue.

In the past, military operations have, apart from displacing lakhs of people, also resulted in the regrouping of the Taliban. Mr. Khan maintains that the government is in touch with the Taliban groups who want peace but does not specify who they are. At a time when a drawdown of coalition forces is imminent in Afghanistan and there is more uncertainty in the form of the Afghan elections, the last thing the government wants is a backlash from the TTP.

Dealing with a difficult enemy

Peace has never been so elusive or desirable for the Pakistan government. Faced with the limited success of a military operation, it is engaging with an enemy which is egregious and unrepentant. The start of the talks was not propitious and there is a sense of déjà vu of little coming of it. On the other hand, the government and the military say they can strike when needed, without resorting to a full-fledged operation. For now at least, that seems to have brought the TTP to the table once again and the peace dialogue seems to have been revived.

The TTP cannot be allowed to set the terms of the dialogue and then violate it with impunity. From all accounts it has accepted talks within the constitutional framework and called for a month-long ceasefire. Past experience shows that these assurances could crumble in minutes and could, in fact, be tactics to buy time.

The government which is faced with the humongous challenge of decimating terrorism has adopted this unusual committee-based approach. It has given the TTP a long rope but it’s difficult to imagine this turbulent adversary settling for peace.

meena.menon@thehindu.co.in

More In: Comment | Opinion