Nawaz soft-pedalling on Taliban talks


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s suggestion of setting up a working group for talking to the Taliban might signal that the PM is simply playing for time, as popular opinion regarding negotiations remains divided and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) doubts the government’s sincerity, especially since the drone strike on May 29 that killed Waliur Rehman.

There are also signs that recent discussions with the intelligence hierarchy have convinced the PM of the militants’ growing weaknesses, which is why he might be inclined to delay talks.

“He (Sharif) has been soft-pedalling the talks issue since his recent briefing at the ISI headquarters,” said former ISI chief Gen (r) Hameed Gul, who is also one of Pakistan’s most prominent right-wing activists and commentators.

“The TTP are close to being chastised. There are differences in their high command. For the moment, the main focus should be on exploiting these weaknesses rather than creating opportunities for talks,” he said.


Not exactly Sharia Compliant


The death of Wali ur Rehman, who was TTP’s second in command, came at a critical time for the Pakistani Taliban. He had been the glue that held together dozens of splinter groups that form the greater umbrella organization that is TTP.

Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud’s harsh tactics and decisions about alliances have long alienated crucial commanders, and it was Wali’s flexibility and negotiation skills that won him the goodwill of the TTP rank and file. It was also why he was chosen as the one to begin talks with the government. With him gone, it is widely believed that Hakimullah will struggle to keep the disagreeing elements of TTP in line.

There is also growing pressure from the Afghan Taliban.

“Mullah Omar has reportedly issued a very strong warning to the TTP,” said Gul. “Their kidnapping and extortion activities, especially those orchestrated by Mullah Fazlullah and the like from Kunar on the Afghan side of the Durand Line, were found to be against Sharia principles, and they were severely criticized by the Afghan Taliban high command.”

Although the TTP publicly asserts allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, the two sides have been at odds for some time now. Mullah Omar forbade clashes with the Pakistan Army early on, intending to keep the insurgency focused on foreign forces occupying Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, however, which financed the TTP, had more expansionist ambitions, and Pakistan became a crucial theatre of war.

Seeing the rising influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the TTP recently took initiatives that aimed to appease Mullah Omer’s Shura, who are sure to return to significance once the United States leaves Afghanistan next year. The recent dismissal of TTP Spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan for criticising the Afghan Taliban is an example of one such step.

“One thing is for sure, once the Taliban come back to power in Afghanistan, the TTP will be no more,” said Gul. Perhaps similar sentiments have persuaded the PM not to give militants the equality that talks would provide while there is still room to degrade them through more covert means.


Differing Opinions


There is, of course, a very vocal group that supports immediate talks as the most pragmatic way forward.

“The working group is a good idea,” insisted the Pak Institute of Peace Studies Director Amir Rana, who is also a noted expert on the tribal insurgency.

“Talking to the Taliban was a core part of the party mandate, and must be followed upon. The final mechanism can be worked out, but the direction must be clear,” he said.

The government seems to be thinking of bringing stakeholders together form across the board – religious scholars, political figures, police and army representatives, etc – for the working group. The idea is to formulate a cohesive national strategy that will allow for different options for the militants to choose from. All initiatives will be aimed at ending the armed rebellion and providing rehabilitation to ‘reconcilable’ elements that can later be integrated back into society.

There has been growing talk of such an organization not just in Islamabad, but also in FATA.

“There seems to be complete agreement between the military and civilian authorities that a national security council like entity must be created,” said Radio Burraq Head of News Rasheed Safi. Radio Burraq is one of the most trusted news sources in the tribal areas.

“The idea is that while such an organization is put together, which will have representation from all stakeholders, the government can play the waiting game and see which way the Taliban posture from here, especially with the American departure from Afghanistan complicating things further,” he said.

The political enthusiasm for talks that was noticeable around the election also seems to be fading. The two most significant political parties favouring talks then were the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) in the country’s centre and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

However, with the federal government seemingly preferring to maintain the status quo for the time being, the PTI has also backed off from its aggressive demands for talks. “The PTI is probably thinking in terms of blowback now,” commented Safi.

“What if they don’t succeed? There are costs of political failure so early on, such as the label of failing to honour their promise, and the federal government isn’t helping. These thoughts are playing in Imran Khan’s mind,” he said.

Nawaz Sharif has been well advised of the danger of going down the negotiation path in such circumstances. Since there is a chance of the rebellion self-destructing, however marginally, the waiting game may seem like the best option for the time being despite all the political compulsions and the demand for talks from the public.


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