May Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

In what must be a record of some kind, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the umbrella organisation of armed Pakistani Taliban groups operating in the NWFP and FATA, suspended peace talks with the government before it had even been acknowledged that any such talks were taking place. The authorities, both civilian and military, are still in a state of denial despite reports that they are making efforts to revive the stalled negotiations.

Right now, two different peace processes have been launched to try and peacefully end the conflict in the NWFP and FATA. One is the above-mentioned process, in which the federal government and the Pakistan Army established contacts with the TTP through the good offices of a jirga of tribal elders and held talks with two representatives of the militants in the hope of reaching a new peace accord. The TTP announced the suspension of the talks in late April after accusing the new government of insincerity. Its spokesperson, Maulvi Omar, who along with Maulvi Waliur Rahman, represented the militants in the talks, claimed that the tribal jirga members had decided to suspend their mediation after they realised that the government wasn’t keen to make the peace process a success.

It is intriguing to note that the PPP-led federal government neither confirmed nor denied reports that it was negotiating with the militants, preferring to keep quiet as speculation mounted about the talks and the identity of the negotiators. The military, on the other hand, declared that it wasn’t withdrawing troops from the conflict-ridden areas such as Waziristan, as demanded by the militants. This was in sharp contrast to earlier claims by the TTP that it was close to an agreement, which would stipulate that the troops be pulled out from the tribal areas, roadside checkpoints be dismantled and tribal families that suffered human and material losses in military operations be compensated.

But chances of such an agreement being reached now seem slim. Subsequent reports of a resumption in negotiations following renewed efforts by the tribal jirga have been categorically denied by the TTP, which has made it clear that talks will only be resumed once the government shows its sincerity by taking confidence building measures to convey its commitment to the peace process. The possibility exists that the TTP’s supposed intransigence is a tactical move to pressurise the government to accept some of its demands.

A second, more fruitful, peace process has been started by the ANP-headed coalition government in the NWFP, that includes the PPP and is backed by the PML-N. This effort is confined to restoring peace in the Swat district, where militants led by Maulana Fazlullah have been using guerrilla tactics, suicide bombings and targeted killings to keep the scenic Swat valley in turmoil and thwart more than 20,000 Pakistan Army soldiers.

The provincial government constituted a six-member ministerial committee to hold talks with influential locals in Swat and parts of the Malakand region, in the hope of forming a grand jirga that would establish contact with the militants in a bid to end the conflict.

The committee is still in the process of holding consultations, even though its timeline of 15 days has ended.

Meanwhile, the NWFP government ordered the release of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the aged founder of the Islamic group, Tanzim-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM). Maulana Sufi had been arrested six years ago after his return from Afghanistan, where he had gone in November 2001, leading around 10,000 followers to fight with the Taliban against the US-led coalition forces. The caretaker government in the NWFP, headed by retired bureaucrat Shamsul Mulk, had decided to release him, and shifted him from jail to a public hospital in Peshawar to facilitate his release. But the military’s involvement in the matter and the prospect of a newly elected government taking charge, deterred the caretaker government from taking such a major decision.

NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti defended his government’s decision to release Maulana Sufi on humanitarian grounds, arguing that the old man had spent enough time in jail. Besides, he argued, the maulana had signed an agreement with the provincial government, renouncing militancy and the use of force to enforce Shariah in Swat and other parts of Malakand.

It is difficult to judge how successful the agreement will be, given that Maulana Sufi’s life has been marked by defiance to the government, with short bouts of compromise. A native of Lower Dir district, Maulana Sufi founded the radical TNSM after leaving the Jamaat-i-Islami, accusing it of lacking sufficient resolve in its struggle to enforce Shariah. He was the leader of the TNSM when its members waged an armed struggle in 1994-95 for the enforcement of Shariah in Swat. The TNSM occupied the Saidu Sharif airport, held 65 government officers hostage and blockaded almost all the main roads in Malakand region and the Kohistan district of Hazara. The blockade was ended and the hostages released only after the then PPP government, headed by chief minister Aftab Sherpao and prime minister Benazir Bhutto, agreed to enforce laws based on Shariah and the Qazi courts in Swat and the rest of Malakand region. In November 2001, Maulana Sufi embarked on his Afghan misadventure, taking ill-trained and poorly equipped men fired with anti-American sentiments to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban. This was an emotional decision lacking in logic, as many Pakistanis were sent to their death and others went missing or were imprisoned for years.

Even the agreement with Maulana Sufi, however, is unlikely to end the conflict in Swat, considering that the more radical TNSM faction, led by his 32-year-old son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, is stronger and more relevant. Maulana Sufi’s agreement with the government and the military could pit him and his followers against Fazlullah’s men and trigger further confrontation and violence. Although the military commander in Swat, Major General Nasser Janjua, declared that Fazlullah would have to surrender and face trial in a court, it is obvious that placing conditions for holding peace talks will lead the two sides nowhere. Fazlullah is the real party to the conflict in Swat and talks should take place with him instead of Maulana Sufi, if the government is serious about bringing durable peace to Swat.

Matters were complicated by the realisation that Fazlullah’s group had joined the TTP, which is headed by the most powerful Pakistani Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud. Thus, it is clear that any peace talks, or deal, with the TTP would necessarily involve Fazlullah and his own faction of the TNSM. This means that the peace talks between the federal government and the military with the TTP will also impact the situation in Swat and affect any future dialogue between the NWFP government and the Fazlullah-led Swat militants.

A further twist in the tale comes in the form of the US, its western allies and the Afghan government, all of whom are opposed to any new peace deal by the Pakistan government with the Taliban militants. US government functionaries have already made a distinction between elements in the tribal areas that are open to reconciliation and those that are not. They have also ruled out the possibility of any talks and agreements with those elements that refuse to halt the use of force for achieving its objectives. It was perhaps US pressure that led Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani to make it clear that peace talks would be held only with those militants who lay down their arms. This is a departure even from the policy of Pervez Musharraf’s government which, despite its obvious pro-US stance, negotiated peace accords, time and again, with armed Taliban militants. As it turned out, however, Gillani’s statements were no more than public posturing; his government had started negotiating with the TTP without first ensuring that its fighters laid down their arms.

The success of these talks, however, is in doubt. It would be naïve to believe that the peace talks will deliver an agreement that would be both, durable and satisfy the US. The US had made its intentions clear when it claimed that Al Qaeda had regrouped in the Pakistani tribal areas and its fighters, along with those of the Taliban, were using the territory to launch cross-border attacks on its forces and those of its allies in Afghanistan. The warning by President Bush and CIA director Michael Hayden that the next attack on the US would most likely originate from FATA, left no doubt that the Americans would closely monitor peace talks and deals concerning the conflict in the tribal areas. It appears that the US will veto any peace deal that goes against its interests and continue to launch missile strikes against targets in Pakistan’s tribal territory without seeking permission from Islamabad.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.