Peace dialogue in critical stage
The Army and paramilitary forces are fighting a guerrilla war against home based militants in the northwest since 2002 without a break. The militants are Islamists waging an ideological war to establish Islamic Caliphate. They neither believe in Pakistan’s constitution nor in democracy saying these are of western model and are anti-Islamic. They want to impose their brand of Sharia which is certainly not in line with what is given in Quran and taught by the Holy Prophet (pbuh). For the achievement of their dream, they have killed very large numbers of Pakistanis, destroyed hundreds of schools, and attacked mosques, Imambargahs, churches, funerals and markets, causing loss of over $ 80 billion to the State.
With the change of government in June 2013, the situation has undergone a change. The PML-N government in the centre and in Punjab, the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and religious political parties/groups are all soft towards the TTP and are keen to hold talks to end the ongoing madness. All parties’ conference was held on 9 September 2013 and a consensus resolution was passed authorizing the government to hold talks with militants unconditionally and to condemn drone attacks which were fuelling terrorism. Since then the government has replaced the fight-fight strategy with talk-talk strategy, while holding on to reoccupied regions and at best reacting to direct attacks. This strategy although seemingly wise is devoid of reciprocity from the other side.
When the TTP welcomed the initiative taken by the APC, it was taken as a sign that the road had been cleared for negotiations between the two sides. The KP government felt so confident that it announced phased withdrawal of troops from Buner, Shangla, Upper and Lower Dir, Chitral and Malakand districts starting mid October 2013 and handing over responsibility to civil administration. While the ground was being smoothened for the meeting, an unexpected and unfortunate incident took place a day after the announcement of withdrawal plan. On September 15, Maj Gen Sanaullah Niazi, and two others embraced shahadat at Upper Dir on account of IED planted by Fazlullah’s militants.
The incident shocked everyone and peace process got a big jolt when TTP claimed responsibility on the following day and vowed to continue hitting military targets. This hostile act in response to Government’s policy of conciliation and appeasement was incomprehensible and regrettable. It caused deep anguish and anger to the rank and file of the Army and put the central and KP governments in awkward position but gave a strong handle to the anti-peace lobbies to beat the peace makers with and make fun of them. As the debate between pro-peace and anti-peace lobbies intensified, another gruesome act of terror took place on September 22 in Peshawar where a church was struck by two suicide bombers soon after Sunday prayers killing 84 people and injuring 175.
While TTP denied involvement, Jundullah Hafsa, a faction of TTP comprising Punjabi Taliban and led by Asmatullah Muavia claimed responsibility of church attack but later disowned it. Muawia had developed differences with Hakimullah after he welcomed Nawaz Sharif’s offer of peace talks and was shunted out of TTP in August last. Ehsanullah Ehsan was also sacked on similar grounds which gave an indication of weakening of TTP. However, notwithstanding lingering heartburning, Hakeemullah and Muawia patched up. In the wake of widespread denunciation inside and outside the country over the dastardly attack on church and condemnation by Ulemas of all schools of thoughts terming the act against the teachings of Quran and Sunnah, TTP Shura urged Muawia to disown the act.
Soon after his disownment, another group Jundullah led by Ahmed Marwat based in NW claimed responsibility. Amidst the confusion, ailing Hakimullah confronted with cracks within TTP added to his woes by replacing Sajna with Latif Mehsud and also giving him additional portfolio of commander TPP chapter Miranshah. Latif had been serving Hakeemullah as his driver and body guard. Like Muawia who had resisted his removal from TTP, Sajna also refused to relinquish his post and lobbied hard to form his own faction.
On September 23, TTP held a meeting in NW which was chaired by Sirajuddin Haqqani and attended by representatives of large number of outfits. It was decided to monitor the progress of peace talks. This meeting was an indication that a change had come in the overall thinking of the hawks as well thereby once again raising hopes of a ceasefire and commencement of negotiations in the near future.
Arrest of Hakeemullah’s deputy Latif Mehsud in Afghanistan by US Special Forces in end October became big news. Reportedly, he was being escorted by NDS officials to Jalalabad to meet Indian High Commissioner. Another report says that he was sent as TTP emissary to Afghanistan by Hakeemullah to procure monetary and material assistance from NDS and guidance regarding peace talks offered by Pak government. Assigning future tasks besides meeting their demands by the NDS in league with RAW has been a routine affair for the last many years. None can deny that the US led ISAF and CIA are in full knowledge of TTP secret links with NDS and RAW and covert operations supervised by RAW. It is also a known fact that segment of TTP, if not all, is an asset of CIA, RAW and NDS and the trio have played a role in the election of TTP Ameer. Hakeemullah had earned applauds for carrying out sensational terror attacks against military targets in Pakistan.
Hakeemullah became a liability for his patrons after he got inclined to peace talks and hence marked as a target. He had to be bumped off and another Ameer, totally in their iron grip, chosen. Latif was arrested because he was the only one who knew the exact program of Hakeemullah’s planned visit to NW on October 31. Probably $ 5 million award was too attractive an inducement for Latif to change his loyalties who otherwise was not in favor of talks. To assume that CIA has lost interest in TTP will be premature. CIA will use this card to keep Pakistan under pressure during its transition phase.
Hakeemullah was killed by a drone in Dandey Darpakhel on October 31, 2013 at a time when he had accepted the dialogue offer and was expected to meet the government delegation of three Ulema on the following day. Chaudhri Nisar had worked hard to tie up the loose ends and was very hopeful for a breakthrough. It was natural for peace lovers to feel disturbed over the gory incident, which was a willful attempt to derail peace process. Karzai’s outburst of anger over arrest of Latif was a put up show. TTP’s former spokesman Azam Tariq threatened that “every drop of Hakeemullah’s blood will turn into a suicide bomber. There were large numbers of reprisal attacks.
Hardliner Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani was named interim TTP chief and on November 7, much to the surprise of all and sundry the most ruthless and wanted man in Pakistan Fazlullah was named as the new Ameer and equally brutal Khalid Haqqani hailing from Swabi as his deputy. Shahidullah Shahid became the spokesman. It is for the first time that both the top appointments have been doled out to non-tribesmen. In his urge to prove that he is as good, if not better than his predecessors in the field of militancy, Fazlullah intensified militancy. He has no choice but to do as told to do by his benefactors.
Seeing that the wind had started to blow against them, the new leadership of TTP made another offer of talks. Nawaz Sharif responded by forming a four-member peace committee comprising Irfan Siddiqui, Major Retd Amer, Prof Ibrahim, Rahimullah Yusafzai and Rustam Shah to represent the government for holding peace talks with Taliban. In response, the TTP rather than forming its own committee named Maulana Samiul Haq, Imran Khan, Maulvi Abdul Aziz, Prof Ibrahim and Mufti Kafaitullah to represent Taliban. Imran, Kafaitullah and later on Aziz opted out of the team.
In the first meeting in NW, the TTP put forward demands of withdrawal of Army from SW and release of elders, women and children in the custody of security forces. ISPR denied detaining any such captives. Killing of 13 police commandoes and injury to 57 in Karachi on February 14, 2014 followed by gruesome beheading of 23 FC soldiers on February 17, 2014, taken captive in June 2010 by Omar Khurasani men and taken to Afghanistan, stalled peace process and forced the government to take punitive action against TTP hideouts in NW and Khyber Agency through six surgical strikes on February 20. Subsequently, targets in SW and Tirah were hit with deadly precision. Series of strikes were so effective that the TTP high command was impelled to announce ceasefire unilaterally for one month and to renew talks. Killing of Asmatullah Shaheen on February 24 was another big loss for the TTP.
Its offer was accepted on 2 March and surgical strikes put on hold. However, yet another dastardly attack took place in Islamabad on March 3, targeting district courts, killing a judge and ten others and injuring 25 people. It was owned by little known Ahrar-ul-Hind. An FC convoy was attacked in Landikotal on the same day. The two acts were disowned but not condemned by TTP. RAW and spoilers are probably behind the series of attacks to disrupt peace process. Under the revised program, it has now been decided that the government’s new team will hold direct talks with Taliban team under the supervision of PM and the proceedings kept secret to keep the spoilers and media at arm’s length. The Army and ISI are ready to form part of the negotiation team as well as to resume precision strikes or to launch an operation in NW. The TTP Shura has been conveyed to identify and pinpoint the anti-State and anti-talks groups operating under its umbrella so that they could be dealt with sternly.
Regardless of continuation of attacks, the government is determined to pursue the dialogue process to end a violent anti-State campaign that has claimed nearly 50,000 lives. Talking from position of weakness would however be a recipe for disaster. Efforts must continue to cultivate and strengthen pro-talks groups and isolate and weaken anti-peace talks groups. At the same time, well-thought out strategy must be devised how to checkmate possibility of new wave of violence in major urban centres in the coming months undertaken by third force to derail talks. Coming weeks are critical for the making or breaking of peace talks. Cycle of violence must be broken at all cost to frustrate the dangerous designs of enemies of Pakistan.
The writer is a retired Brig, defence analyst, columnist and a researcher. firstname.lastname@example.org