With a clear political vision, categorical demands for the release of prisoners, and for space in what it calls its “area of influence,” the banned terrorist outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is slowly moving toward securing political legitimacy.
On April 3, as a goodwill gesture, the government set free 19 detainees from the embattled Waziristan region. On April 4, the TTP extended the month-old cease-fire to April 10 and demanded the release of another 100 detainees, most of them touted as noncombatants.
Although the Interior Ministry and officials in northwestern Pakistan played down the release as a routine matter, it’s clear that the militant outfit – which has been at the heart of brutal executions and suicide bombings in the last few years – wants several hard-core comrades released from jail.
At the same time, Jamaat-e-Islami – the Pakistani equivalent of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – has gone a step further by demanding that the next stage of peace talks with the TTP be held in Islamabad. The demand came from the newly appointed chief of the party, Sirajul Haq.
The first meeting between government and TTP representatives took place in March at an undisclosed location in the mountainous terrain of North Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan. Direct talks between the TTP and the government either in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, or in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, would certainly amount to another major concession to a group that publicly rejects the Pakistani state and its constitution.
The TTP wants its own version of Shariah law imposed across Pakistan. It also wants a “peace zone” where it can engage in dialogue with the government in safety. Last week, however, Khawaja Asif – Pakistan’s defense minister – ruled out any compromise on Pakistan’s constitution and its territorial integrity. Every decision and step, he said, will be strictly in accordance with the constitution.
The government and the Taliban are in a second round of talks, which interlocutors have described as “decisive.” These talks began in March, after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the parliament that he wanted to give the dialogue a last chance to stop the bloodshed that Pakistan has suffered in the last decade.
Since Pakistan partnered with the United States in its controversial “war on terror” in Afghanistan in October 2001, it has suffered nearly 51,000 casualties, including some 5,000 military and civilian security personnel. An official document – the National Internal Security Policy – puts the cumulative losses at $78 billion in the last 10 years.
Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister and Sharif’s point man for the talks, also supports the dialogue. He considers this the best way out of the “bloody war that former dictator General Pervez Musharraf imposed on Pakistan.”
“It’s America’s war,” Khan declared before a gathering of mostly religious and political leaders, activists and intellectuals last week in Islamabad. Most of them supported the dialogue with the TTP, saying the group could be talked out of the insurgency on a “give and take” basis.
The TTP is said to have shared with government negotiators a list of more than 700 Taliban “noncombatants” – mostly women, children, and the elderly – who they claim are in the custody of the security forces. The government, on the other hand, is demanding the release of some high-profile figures held hostage by the Taliban.
Engaging in dialogue with an organization the United States designates as a terrorist outfit has turned out to be quite divisive in Pakistan. The army is wary of talking to the TTP, which, immediately after the dialogue was launched, announced the execution of 23 soldiers whom it had captured two years ago.
“How can we justify shaking hands with those who have slit the throats of our soldiers and then desecrated the dead bodies by using the severed heads as footballs?” asked a senior serving army officer who requested anonymity.
But, as Pakistan undergoes a painful democratic transition, the once-unchallenged military appears to have opted for a low-key role and is going along with the government’s decision – though not without friction.
Most liberal writers and academics also oppose the de facto “unconditional” talks, saying they violate the country’s constitution and undermine its sovereignty.
Raza Rumi, a prominent writer and television show host, holds similar views and has been vocal in his opposition to the talks. As a result, 11 bullets were fired on his car in Lahore in late March. While he survived, his driver was killed. The attack on Rumi terrified those opposed to the way the government is pressing ahead with the talks.
“It was a clear message to all of us,” said the editor of a national daily that has been a vocal critic of the Al-Qaeda-inspired militant groups in Pakistan. And, indeed, since the attack on Rumi, the opposition to the talks with TTP has been much less visible.
The Pakistani government also feels hawkish, having re-energized its friendships with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which recently doled out some $2 billion as a “goodwill gesture” and promised more. The finance minister told the parliament that this money was practically free-of-charge aid to Pakistan. Critics, however, smell rat and fear that by aligning itself with Saudi Arabia for the fight against the Syrian regime, the cash-strapped country may be entering into a second jihad and a renewed conflict with Shiite Iran, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Pakistan was instrumental in the anti-Soviet Russian jihad of the 1980s, and critics fear that it may be in for a new jihad, as well as a Shiite-Sunni sectarian war.
Imtiaz Gul is a journalist and the executive director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies. He is also a member of the Bellagio Forum initiative for the establishment of a U.N. University for Peace and Social Studies. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).