Peace talks with TTP in doldrums

412456-talibanreuters-1343142512-334-640x480 by Asif Haroon Raja

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 anti-Islamic. They had picked up arms against the state in reaction to induction of Army in South Waziristan (SW). Militancy gathered pace after the drone attack on a religious seminary in Bajaur in October 2006 killing 80 students. It activated militants under Maulvi Faqir Muhammad in Bajaur. In reaction, Punjab Centre Army recruits receiving training at Dargai were targeted by a suicide bomber in the following month.

Spate of suicide attacks surged after the Lal Masjid-Jamia Hafsa incident in July 2007 and militants in Mehmand Agency, Dir, Malakand and Swat got energized and transferred terrorism to urban centres. Spurt in recruitment enabled Baitullah Mehsud to gather support of militants of all tribal agencies and their leaders accepted him as their supreme leader. It enabled Baitullah to form Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP) by December 2007. Its Shura took control of militant outfits of all seven agencies as well as Dara Adam Khel under Tariq Afridi. With passage of time, TTP kept expanding its tentacles to other parts of Pakistan by getting aligned with other banned groups which are in large numbers.

Between 2004 and 2008 when Gen Musharraf was at the helms of affairs, eight peace deals were signed with militant outfits. Only two deals struck with Maulvi Nazir in SW and with Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan (NW) have survived. During this period, the Pakistani Taliban with the help of foreign support had gained control in South and North Waziristan, Kurram, Bajaur and Mehmand Agency and seemingly had an upper edge. Peace deals enabled the militants to regain breath, regroup and get their prisoners released. Some important forts had been captured and one of the battalions was ambushed in SW making 250 all ranks including CO prisoners. Morale of lower ranks in Army and Frontier Corps (FC) was low. Some of the reasons behind under performance of security forces were that the troops had been launched to fight guerrilla war without acclimatization, training, motivation and financial security; a significant percentage of troops particularly the Pashtuns were convinced that the Taliban were on the right to demand Shariah; the FC was ill-equipped and not trained to fight guerrilla war.

When Gen Ashfaq Kayani took over from Gen Musharraf as Army Chief in November 2007, the first thing he did was to change the pattern of conventional training to low intensity conflict training. The next thing he did was to give a highly rewarding welfare package to lower ranks which was contrary to past practice. This package was so attractive that it had far reaching impact on the behavior and morale of troops. He then promoted only those officers to senior ranks who were proficient in leadership qualities and in the field.

Peace deal with Maulana Fazlullah and Maulana Sufi signed in Swat in February 2009 was dishonored in April when the militants after agreeing to renounce violence in return for enforcement of Nizam-e-Adal in Malakand Division violated the treaty by intervening into Lower Dir and Buner. It evoked a nationwide condemnation. When the Army launched a major military operation in end April 2009, it was a different Army and it took the militants by complete surprise. If the militants daringly put their lives at stake so did the soldiers. Both matched in boldness and chivalry, but the Army had an edge because of better discipline, fighting techniques, mobility, firepower and above all superior cause. Junior officers led from the front while senior officers closely supervised the operations. Kayani’s frequent visits to forward areas boosted their spirits.

As a consequence, Swat operation was a complete success, although heavy casualties occurred due to tough resistance put up by the well dug in militants and suicide bombers. Fazlullah and his followers beat a hasty retreat and fled to Afghanistan. The FC under IGFC Maj Gen Tariq Khan threw out the militants from Bajaur. Storming of GHQ on October 10, 2009 by Dr Usman led militants impelled Kayani to take the battle to the main base of TTP in Mehsud inhabited SW on October 17. Within a month, the mother of all battles was won and TTP scattered. These successes were achieved at a time when the US-NATO forces in Afghanistan duly reinforced with extra troops suffered defeats in Helmand and Nuristan and had lost the imitative and gone on the defensive.

It was owing to heavy casualties suffered by US troops that it was decided by Obama administration to make drone as a choice weapon for Af-Pak region. Drone war in FATA accelerated from mid 2010 onwards focused on South and North Waziristan. Reactive wrath of militants suffering casualties in drone attacks fell upon people of Pakistan since the TTP has no mandate to operate in Afghanistan. When any leading leader of TTP or al-Qaeda is killed by a drone, the TTP avenges the death by striking targets in Pakistan.

Jundal Hafsa was established by Asmatullah Muavia in end 2007 to avenge the deaths of inmates of Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa in July 2007. This group mainly targeted the military and ISI. When Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a drone in August 2009 in SW, the TTP vowed to avenge his death and till the launch of operation Rah-e-Nijat, spate of suicide attacks and bomb attacks remained on a high pitch. Suicide attack on CIA base in Khost in December 2009 killing seven agents was undertaken at the behest of Waliur Rahman to avenge the death of Baitullah.

When Osama Bin Laden was killed by US Navy Seals team on May 2, 2011, his death was avenged by attacking Frontier Constabulary Academy, Mehran naval base and several other targets. When Waliur Rahman and six others were killed by a drone on the night of 29 May 2013, the TTP vowed to avenge their death and took back its offer of dialogue. Jundul Hafsa, also known as Janoon-e-Hafsa took the revenge by killing ten foreigners at base camp of Nanga Parbat on June 23, 2013.

Unlike Hakimullah who disfavors talks, his deputy Waliur Rahman favored dialogue and had convinced the Shura members to make an offer of dialogue to the government.  His group suggested Maulana Fazlur Rahman, Munawar Hassan, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan to act as guarantors to preclude possibility of backtracking from the agreement. The offer was not taken seriously by the PPP led regime and it made it conditional to renunciation of violence. Talks offer was renewed once rightist PML-N and PTI were voted to power after May 11 elections. A stage was set for a big breakthrough when Wali who was the moving force behind peace talks was killed by a drone. Drone couldn’t have struck the intended target without in-house information.

Ostensibly, Hakimullah or any of his close confidantes not in favor of talks could have leaked the hideout of Wali. TPP Shura promptly appointed Khan Said alias Sajna as deputy of Hakeemullah and also commander SW chapter, who had been very close to Wali and is pro-peace talks. This was done to allay the apprehensions that Wali’s death was a consequence to in-house conspiracy. Hakeemullah, however, never felt comfortable with Sajna who has a strong clout among Mehsud elders in SW and is also very close to Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

It was generally expected that the TTP leading militancy in the northwest and in Punjab would tone down its acts of terror particularly against civilian targets once PML-N and PTI formed governments in the centre and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) respectively. Imran Khan has all along maintained and still sticks to his stance that war on terror is US imposed war and not our war. He has been talking high of the people of FATA and insisting that Pakistan must get out of self-destructive war and come to terms with militants through negotiations. He has steadfastly condemned drone attacks and led a march to SW in which many westerners including Americans took part. He went to the extent of stating that if voted to power, he will order shooting down intruding drone. Like Imran, Nawaz Sharif has also remained soft towards Taliban and favored peace talks to end the war. As a result of their soft approach the TTP spared these two parties and targeted liberal political parties during election campaign. ANP suffered the most in terms of human losses and in elections.

Contrary to high expectations, the Taliban accelerated their terror strikes. 105 attacks took place in 105 days after the new government took over in early June 2013. Bulk of attacks has taken place in KP and PTI lost three sitting MPAs. This surge has occurred in spite of APC called by the government in which it was agreed by all the participants belonging to different parties and religious groups as well as Army Chief and DG ISI to enter into dialogue with the militants without pre-conditions and give peace a chance. Encouraged by Banki Moon, tough stance was taken on drones and for the first time it was decided to take up the issue to the UN if the US didn’t pay any heed. The government stuck to its standpoint despite lot of noise made by seculars and liberals. Anti-peace talks lobbies launched a concerted campaign to sabotage proposed peace talks and kept picking fault lines in the resolution passed by the APC.

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 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, Lt Col Tauseef and one NCO embraced shahadat at Upper Dir on account of IED planted by Fazlullah’s militants.

The incident left everyone dumbfounded with shock 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. Muavia 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 Muavia 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 Muavia to disown the act.

Soon after his disownment, another group Jundullah led by Ahmed Marwat based in NW claimed responsibility. Some say both belong to one group and it is a cover plan. 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 has been serving Hakeemullah as his driver and body guard. Like Muavia who had resisted his removal from TTP, Sajna has also refused to relinquish his post and is lobbying 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 is an indication that a change has 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. However, while the government is determined to hold talks, opponents of peace talks are continuing with their efforts to fail the talks. Success or failure of talks will depend upon the conduct of TTP Shura.

The writer is a retired Brig, defence analyst and a columnist.

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