Pakistani Taliban: Hopes for Peace?

On October 12, 2012, the world received a rude reminder that Pakistan still struggles with Islamic terrorists. The ruthless shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai made international headlines. Yousafzai, a young education-rights’ activist, was captured on her school bus by Islamic extremists and then shot in both the head and neck at point-blank range. Miraculously, Yousafzai survived, emerging as an international system for courage and freedom.

While Yousafzai’s story of survival and resilience captured the world’s attention, few outside of Pakistan examined the perpetrators of the attempted murder: the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TPP). The Taliban rejects the current Pakistani constitution, and their ideal government would involve strict adherence to Qur’anic Islamic law. Furthermore, the TPP remains dedicated to the expulsion of all Coalition troops from neighboring Afghanistan, and have been outspoken critics of U.S. drone strikes (many of which target Taliban fighters), a position that has elicited sympathetic support from the general public.

The TPP has a long history of conflict with the central Pakistani government, and has been responsible for countless terror attacks over the past decade and has taken an estimated 45,000 lives. With its nuclear-weapons capabilities and large domestic population, many believe that Pakistan has not embraced its full potential in recent years. Most of the blame for the lack of progress lies with the disruptive threat posed by the Taliban.

In May 2013, it appeared that the Pakistani government was moving towards reconciliation with the Taliban. Current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ran on the platform that he would work to end the divide between the Pakistani government and the Taliban, a sentiment that produced positive reverberations among the war-weary Pakistani population. The Pakistani people, sick of internal destruction and terror, are desperate for countrywide stability, even if it means abandoning their role in the U.S.-led War on Terror.

However, while the Pakistani government may have been eager for a peaceful settlement with the Taliban, the United States had different intentions in mind. A United States drone operating in Pakistani killed Wali ur-Rehman, the Taliban field commander directing operations in Waziristan. As the second-in-command in for entire Pakistani Taliban, ur-Rehman’s death represented a staggering setback for the Taliban organizational structure. The Taliban took ur-Rehman’s death as a sign of bad faith on behalf of the Pakistani government and rescinded their offer of peace talks. Frustrated, the Pakistani government distanced themselves from the drone strike, saying that “the government has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.” Of course, the United States was the big winner here, as the scuttled peace talks ensured that Pakistan remained at odds with the extremist ideology of the Pakistani Taliban.

As the Taliban walked away from the negotiating table, the desperate Pakistani government has chased after the Taliban, each time with an increasingly weak negotiating position. In September 2013, Taliban government finally announced a willingness to negotiate—with preconditions. The ill-positioned Pakistani government was finally able to restart negotiations after releasing a number of Taliban prisoners, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Baradar, a founding TPP member and the organization’s top military strategist, had been captured in 2010 in a joint operation between the CIA and the Pakistani military; back when the host government had been more fully committed to the War on Terror.

The gap between the United States and Pakistan had widened precipitously, and the United States vehemently opposed Baradar’s release. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry framed its decision to release Baradar and the other captured terrorists as a means by which “to further facilitate the Afghan reconciliation process.” Clearly, the Pakistanis are committed to taking steps to end their involvement in their fight against Islamic extremism, regardless of the interests of the more powerful United States. However, the United States had not finished playing the cards in its deck.

On November 1, a U.S. drone strike killed TPP leader Hakimullah Mehsud. Regardless of whether the Pakistan government was responsible for the attack, the Taliban broke off negotiations and unleashed a stream of retaliatory attacks on the resident population. The Pakistani government was livid with the United States, and called the strike “a murder of peace.” As Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar put it, “”The government of Pakistan does not see this strike as a strike on an individual, but on the peace process.” In other words, the Pakistani government had made the shift from a denunciation of United States disregard of state boundaries to now a full-fledged opposition to the destruction of terrorist leaders. Rather than fall into line with United States interests, Pakistan redoubled its commitment to escape its predicament between an increasingly unwanted relationship with the United States and Taliban coercion.

The TPP has increased its pressure on the Pakistani government during January of 2014 through a series of large-scale suicide attacks. Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid explained the Taliban’s strategic approach. “We will continue attacks on the government and its armed forces as the government has neither announced a ceasefire nor peace talks with us,” he said.

What Mr. Shahid means is that the Taliban are committed to a strategy of compellence. They will continue to pound the morale and resolve of the Pakistani government until they are able to mold the government into a pliable position from which the Taliban can fashion a regime much closer in line with Sharia law and resonant to the Taliban’s Islamic orientation.

Unfortunately, this is not mere speculation nor fanciful foretelling. With every passing day, the Pakistani government loses ground to its Talibani counterparts, and an increasingly isolationist United States has been either unwilling or unable to stop the change in power balances. Both the Pakistani government and people have been compromised by the onslaught of Islamist terror, and as negotiations have restarted in early February, it appears that the government representatives are hanging by mere threads.

On January 30, Prime Minister Sharif name a committee of four negotiators who will represent the government’s position in the peace talks. Three days later, the Taliban named its own representative mediators—politicians from within Pakistan’s government! Admirably, Sharif has tried to maintain a façade of strength, declaring, “I am sure the whole nation would be behind the government if and when we launch a military operation against the terrorists – but I want to give peace a final chance.” However, both the Taliban and the Pakistani people know that the Sharif government has neither the resolve nor wherewithal to continue its fight. Instead, the Taliban knows to read Sharif’s statement for what it is: a muted proclamation of willingness to surrender.

No matter what position the Taliban take now, the government team will negotiate, because the government is committed to these peace talks as the final peace talks with the Taliban—at very nearly any price. In fact, it would take no great leap of the imagination to suppose that Sharif’s government has gone so far as to threaten the United States to keep its drones out of Pakistan under pain of military retaliation. Either way, the United States and its drone program have been keeping an unusually low profile over the last few months.

From the Pakistani government’s perspective, the sooner they can arrive at a peace agreement, the better. As time continues to upset the power balance in the Taliban’s favor, the government’s few principled stands continue to wither away. At the outset of the talks, the government set out five guiding principles for an agreement between the government and the Taliban, including a cessation of violence and that the negotiations must remain within the parameters of the preexisting constitution. The current constitution, while based in Islamic law, guarantees rights for women and minorities in a fashion that the Taliban finds highly objectionable.

While it may be that some of the Taliban resistance is willing to negotiate with the government in good faith, the fragmented Taliban resistance may not be able to effectively reign in its most radical elements, who may reasonably believe that they will only advance extremist Islamist interests by continuing a campaign of terror. Those very divisions arose last week as the Jundallah faction of the Taliban blew up a cinema center and promised similar attacks in the future.

Jundallah’s threat reflects the difficulty inherent in negotiating with any ideologically motivated insurgent group—no insurgent representative can credibly speak for everyone, and the chances of spoiling—armed attacks aimed at undermining peace talks through generating bad faith—are a very real threat. Even some of those members who do obey the ceasefire for the time being have not refrained from applying additional coercive pressure. As Bloomberg reports, Taliban negotiator and former Lal Masjid head cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz threatened, “You should know that at the moment [the Taliban] have at least 400 to 500 female suicide bombers in Waziristan and other tribal areas.”

This coercion campaign seems to have achieved its intended effect. Whereas Pakistan’s government negotiators are nominally bound to stand by the five guiding principles, Prime Minister Sharif has given an “open mandate” to the government negotiating team.

With the power to stem off the radicalization of the Pakistan slipping out from under the government negotiating team, the media may be focusing on the wrong question. Perhaps, the question that we should be asking is not whether the two groups will reconcile, but rather just how total will be the takeover of the new Pakistan government.

UPDATE: In a total turn of events, it appears that the TPP campaign has actually backfired. Instead of beating the public into submission, the upswing of TPP terror seems to have shifted popular opinion away from supporting dialogue and instead backing the use of military force against the TPP insurgents. The change in popular attitude has given Nawaz a new set of negotiating options, and has quickly displayed his willingness to use force. Pakistan has readied an arsenal of domestically-produced drones, and are willing to use them. On February 26, the Pakistani government (note: not United States) forces killed TPP leader Shaheen Bhittani.  The Pakistani-led airstrikes have been exceptionally precise, another sign that domestic opinion has shifted.  Guerrilla insurgent groups such as the TPP rely heavily on popular support in order to prevent exposure to the more-powerful Pakistani military. However, the precision of these recent airstrikes suggests that disillusioned civilians have been informing on TPP militant whereabouts, a development that may have dire consequences for the long-term viability of the TPP resistance in Pakistan.

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