The March 1 ceasefire announced by the Tehrik-e–Taliban Pakistan (TTP) holds somewhat tenuously in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) even as the Nawaz Sharif government shows extraordinary patience in continuing to engage with them.
TTP Tantrums Vs. Pakistani Army
The TTP was badly hit by the pinpointed air-strikes undertaken by the Pakistani army in February. The ceasefire resulted due to the TTPs weak position, as their current hide-outs stood revealed and they could not escape to higher mountain reaches immediately due to winter weather.
Though patience of the army leadership appeared to be wearing thin with the TTP’s dilatory tactics, on March 12, a meeting chaired by Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Rashad Mahmood, reaffirmed “full preparedness and resolve of the armed forces to fight the menace of terrorism under a comprehensive strategy, within the policy parameters set by the political leadership.”
The TTP Shura demanded direct talks with authorised government functionaries, including representatives of the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The army is against any such direct involvement. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali has increasingly emerged in a frontal or nodal role. He presided over the March 25 meeting attended by the Director General of the ISI, Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam, which authorised a committee of civilian bureaucrats, comprising Federal Ports & Shipping Secretary Habibullah Khattak, Additional Secretary of the FATA, Arbab Arif, former bureaucrat Rustam Shah Mohmand, sole member of the Government’s previous team of interlocutors which broke the ice, all three Pashtuns, and Fawad Hussan Fawad, Additional Secretary, Prime Minister’s Office, to talk to the TTP at a secret venue in North Waziristan.
The success of the talks would depend on whether the civilian politicians can take the army along while tackling the main demands of TTP vis-à-vis the imposition of Sharia law, the withdrawal of the army from FATA, and the release of prisoners.
Ceasefire and Negotiations: Various Conundrums
The ceasefire would need to be extended after March 30. Any further extension could tactically redound to the army’s disadvantage, helping the TTP militants regroup, and escape to the hills in better climatic conditions. However, a key risk in this regard would be the possibility of maverick actions by smaller militant groups perpetrating localised violence against security forces. Each such act of violence makes further negotiations with the TTP more difficult as it cannot cohesively control militants loosely adhering to its fold. The army has threatened firm retaliation against such incidents.
Demands have come from civil society that ceasefire extension be accompanied by release of kidnapped or arrested `non-combatants’, especially the long incarcerated sons of PPP politicians, Haider Gilani and Shahbaz Taseer and the Vice Chancellor of Peshawar University, Dr Ajmal Khan.
Release of prisoners remains a vexing issue. A list of 300 women and children `prisoners’ was given to a pro-TTP mediator, Professor Ibrahim, but the army denied holding any women or children. In the recent past, the execution of Dr Usman, the Punjabi Taliban mastermind of the 2010 attack on Army Headquarters was stayed by the Punjab government after the Taliban issued a threat.
Shahbaz Sharif too has been reluctant to act firmly against militants for fear of retaliation and collateral damage in Punjab. The army would baulk at release of prisoners at this stage, especially those arrested or detained for specific terrorist incidents. Phased release of those who may not have committed heinous crimes could be considered later, provided binding progress for peace can be achieved through a longer term ceasefire accompanied by a surrender of weapons. Currently, agreement on this seems a far cry.
Whenever there is a military operation in FATA and KP or anticipation thereof, a large outflow of internally displaced persons (IDPs), mostly civilians, especially women and children occurs. IDPs from the 2009 Swat operation continue to live in abysmal conditions in the Jalozai relief camp and other less organised temporary settlements in Tank, Dera Ismail Khan. There is also a burgeoning Pashtun settlement in greater Karachi urban agglomeration. Any new military operation would require the civilian administration to gear up their preparedness to cope for a fresh influx of IDPs. This can be an emotive issue.
The Way Forward?
A withdrawal of army` regulars’ from FATA too seems unacceptable, even if the TTP couches this request with the proposal of restoring jurisdiction of Frontier Corps para-military personnel. Persistent infighting within the TTP would also need to be assessed. Mullah Fazlullah, the current TTP leader hails from Swat, and is disliked by the army leadership. Though his ascension may have been endorsed by the Afghan Taliban leadership (Mullah Omar), it is unclear if powerful local leaders like the Haqqanis, Mehsuds and the Wazirs fully accept him. The army/ISI could exploit these differences.
Though a 7 Infantry Division garrison is present in Miranshah, the writ of the State does not run in many areas of FATA. These areas can be used as `launch pads’ by insurgents supporting the Afghan Taliban (AT) in Afghanistan, as also against Pakistan’s own security forces. The army’s responses would have to be carefully calibrated, giving the TTP a sufficient ` bloody nose’ yet not jeopardising the capacity of the Afghan Taliban to hold ground on the other side of the Af-Pak border.
While the civilian political leadership seems keen to continue the peaceful dialogue, the army sees this as ineffectual appeasement.
This dilemma is likely to intensify as Pakistan’s politicians muddle through the current confusion on finding the right answers to curb the growing domestic threat of Islamic terrorism.