Taliban in Pakistan. Photo courtesy of Sehi/Flikr
Pakistan is stubbornly waiting for a miracle. Years of on-and-off negotiations with terrorists and half-hearted talks with the Taliban, once an aggressive adversary, has proven one thing. The Taliban can’t be trusted.
For over ten years, I’ve been traveling in and out of Pakistan to understand why Islamabad underestimates its core enemy. “We have good jihadis, bad jihadis and disgruntled jihadi elements,” former Minister of Interior and my uncle, Tariq Mahmood, once said to me. “It’s not that simple to eliminate this threat.”
To Pakistani authorities, the Taliban are a complex mix of splinter groups with divergent leaders with one thing in common. The extremists agree on Sharia law, an unrealistic request for Pakistan to grant given its centrist, secular, and semi-democratic political culture. Then why talk to the Taliban?
Months ago, a Pakistani Army Colonel, who wishes to be unnamed, told me his country is encircled. “We have three different threats. We have troops deployed to our Eastern (i.e., India) and Western front (i.e., Afghanistan),” he told me. “And now we have our own internal threats. What we don’t need is a civil war.” But that’s exactly where Pakistan is today.
This week, a splinter group of the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) hit the capital city after five years of relative calm. Over the past month, the Taliban has killed dozens of Pakistani military officers, for which the Army responded with targeted air strikes. Pakistan’s stealth bombs may have frightened the Taliban, and a one-month ceasefire is in effect. But it won’t last.
If history is a guide, negotiations between Pakistan and its proxies have proven perilous. In a five-year period, from 2004 to 2009, Pakistan has signed several peace agreements with extremists in the tribal belt region to curb terrorism. More specifically, deals struck between tribal leaders and terrorists were primarily intended to stop targeted attacks against the Pakistani establishment, not to eliminate the jungle of jihadi organizations that operate without impunity.
To Pakistan’s credit, the first military offensive against militants in the Swat valley, a settled area, was seen as moderately successful. (Swat is the same town the Taliban attacked the young advocate for education, Malala Yousufzai, who survived.) Remarkably, earlier this year, the Army conducted counter insurgency operations in Northern Waziristan, severing tries with its quixotic partners in the Haqqani network, designated an American terrorist group.
While military operations are currently stalled, and a Taliban truce is allegedly in effect, Pakistan is still precarious. The pivotal question is whether talks will resume, and if so, what can the committee of rebels resolve?
The current Muslim League government may have an incentive to seek a viable solution to Pakistan’s internal mess, but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is incapable of controlling unruly mediators and makeshift moderates—all of whom represent varied versions of the Taliban conglomerate and diverse political interest groups.
As an American observer, Pakistan’s flip-flop policy of appeasement and the extremists’ entangled politics and peace negotiators all lead to one likely outcome—manipulation. Pakistan’s clever plan to talk to the Taliban could encourage dissent within the monstrous network of militants. It might serve Pakistan’s interests to witness terrorists tearing themselves apart. On the other hand, the Taliban’s willingness to vaguely discuss peace at all with Pakistan will give the group time to renew its strategy, acquire additional resources, and recruit more members to gain an upper hand in the conflict.
So much for irrepressible hope.