Pakistan-Taliban talks a reluctant courtship

Developing Just Leadership

Ayesha Alam

Jumada' al-Akhirah 01, 1435 2014-04-01

News & Analysis

by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1435)

There appears to be little seriousness about achieving lasting peace as the Pakistani government and Taliban-appointed committees go through the motions of negotiations.

Since late last year, there have been rumblings in the media about Pakistan-Taliban negotiations. From upfront, these negotiations etch out a glaring contradiction. Even as negotiations are taking place, the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban movement, dubbed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), are in an active state of war — both have been sniping at each other in a struggle that perceives the other as an existential threat to its survival.

For instance, in a meeting scheduled for early-February 2014 between the government appointed committee and a committee nominated by the Taliban, the delegation representing the Pakistani government side simply failed to show up. There is a sense of ennui and inevitable failure looming over the talks. “These days, as much as the Pakistani Taliban hate Indians and Americans, they hate other Pakistanis more,” wrote Haider Ali Hussein Mullick in a February 23 op-ed for The NY Times.

In short, the pressure being applied on these negotiations is coming from the US, which is desperate to gain a foothold in Afghanistan in the face of Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a decree extending the presence of US troops past 2014. “That’s about the only card the US has to play in Afghanistan anymore, trying to get the Pakistanis to pressure the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government,” noted defense analyst Ivan Eland in an interview given to the news channel RT. “You know, the US could apply more aid or threats or whatever, but it is still going to be a tough go to get the Taliban to negotiate with the government.”

The US’ dilemma is imminently understandable — the multinational mining and construction projects underway in Afghanistan require a security presence, a deterrent to the kamikaze destruction that Taliban daily threaten US interests with. The US has long favored a carrot and stick approach used in tandem — the post 9/11 Taliban movement hardened as an anti-US force under the Waziristan Mehsud tribe, leading the US to target Baitullah in 2009 and then his successor Hakimullah Mehsud in drone strikes in 2013 (Baitullah and Hakimullah are not related; they simply belong to the same Mehsud tribe). The dalliances with negotiations have also proceeded over the years; right now, there is a certain urgency behind them because Karzai continues to play hardball.

For the first time in four years, a top US defense official visited Pakistan in December 2014 to drive the point home — the visit was made by none other than Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had made ending the war with the Taliban a campaign promise, but merely as a means to win some popular points with the masses. Now that the US signaled it was ready to come to the discussion table, it was time to get serious about that rhetorical throwaway. “If Hamid Karzai doesn’t play ball with the US, then you could see more pressure from the US on Pakistan to get the Afghan Taliban to negotiate,” noted Eland.

The problem is the Pakistani government’s entrenched animosity toward the Taliban that have become an even more well-organized military, populist, and political force than before. Pakistan desperately needs to cull friends in Afghanistan in order to maintain regional influence, but Karzai and those around him are staunchly anti-Pakistan and pro-India. While the Taliban were once Pakistan’s firm ally, the relationship has soured following the Pakistan army’s subcontracting of the US “War on Terror” after 9/11 against its own civilians. The night-raids, disappearances and torture sessions that the military and law enforcement agencies have carried out in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KPP — formerly the North West Frontier Province) have made the Taliban a bona fide enemy of the government.

Such is the animus that just in February 2014 the Taliban killed 23 soldiers of the Pakistan Frontier Corps they had captured in 2010. The Taliban charged that the killings were in response to Pakistani government forces killing and torturing Taliban prisoners. Omar Khalid Khurassani, a commander of the group, said, “We have warned the government time and again through the media to stop the killing of our friends, who were in the custody of security forces, but the government continued killing our people.”

The incident punctuated an escalating war between the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Pakistani military. More than 100 people, soldiers included, died in Taliban attacks across the country in January 2014. Pakistan’s paramilitary forces, compounded by the government’s tacit support of the disastrous US drone attacks, have inflicted even more damage in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. As many analysts have noted, the US drone policy is actually strengthening the enemy being fought by the Pakistan army on behalf of Washington — the terror, anger, and fear it is inflicting on the northern communities are rapidly swelling the ranks of the Taliban, and encouraging its organizational coherence.

Nawaz Sharif’s tone at the killing of Frontier Corps members was circumspect and only mildly reprobatory, “Such incidents have an extremely negative impact on the ongoing dialogue aimed at promoting peace,” said the statement issued by his office. However, the Pakistani military was incensed, and deeply angered at this attack on their pride and prestige in the country. Government negotiators signaled a strong unwillingness to continue the talks: Irfan Siddiqui, member of the government negotiating team said there was no point to the negotiations. “It is sad that we are not moving in the right direction,” he said.

As of now, under US pressure, the mood has become more conciliatory. The Taliban announced a one-month cease-fire in February. A gratified Feb 6 New York Times article reported, “After almost four hours, both sides described the talks as ‘cordial and friendly’.” Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesperson for the TTP said, “the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan has initiated talks with the government with sincerity and for good purpose.” In response, the government issued careful praise on Pakistan’s Geo Television channel; Irfan Siddiqui also changed his tune, “Today, we are seeing a big breakthrough,” he stated.

The congratulatory mood proved to be as fragile as a carpet of eggshells. A few days after the cease-fire, a US drone attack killed a senior Taliban member. On Feb 11, the Taliban killed a Pakistani employee of the US consulate. Calls began afresh for military operation against the Taliban. “I don’t see any chances of these talks succeeding,” said retired General Talat Masood, a defense analyst based in Islamabad. “There is so much divergence between what the expectations are and what their demands are, that lust for power,” he said, referring to the TTP. Divergence between expectation and practical policy also plagues the government’s side of the equation.

As the US alternately pressurizes Pakistan to negotiate with the Taliban and then undermines those negotiations with continuing drone attacks, the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to pay the price as they are the ones suffering in this war of attrition. Pakistan is caught within the push-and-pull of US foreign policy in Eurasia, which seems bent on guaranteeing energy security for the US through the Central Asian chessboard and destabilizing the lone Muslim state armed with nuclear weapons.

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