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Should Pakistan negotiate with the Taliban?

Mansoor Jafar

Published: Updated:

The proposed talks between the government and the Taliban have been shrouded under mounting uncertainty following the All Parties Conference's (APC) formal demand for a discussion last month.

Islamabad’s government seems reluctant to hold the talks in view of the fresh wave of bomb blasts which struck the nation as soon as the talks were proposed and subsequently evoked a feeling of aversion in the media. While some politicians, including Imran Khan and Islamist leaders, have demanded that the government make a unilateral case in the federally administered tribal areas (FATA), where a military operation has been underway since 2004 to flush out Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, to allow a peaceful environment for the beginning of the talks.

Confusion is growing with every passing day. The government is not ready to make a final decision concerning holding the talks, nor is the Taliban prepared to budge an inch over their conditions for the talks. Their demands insist on complete withdrawal of the army from FATA and a permanent halt in drone attacks.

The ‘new’ Taliban

Whether Pakistan will engage the Taliban in talks to restore peace or whether it will continue to carry out a “war on terror” against them will be decided by the new army chief in the next couple of weeks.

Mansoor Jafar

New and unknown Taliban groups have recently emerged and claimed responsibility for fresh bomb attacks which targeted military convoys, markets and a church in Peshawar city. Interestingly, the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) disowned the renewed attacks in the last 30 days, which killed about 39 military personnel and 300 civilians, but some unknown groups like Jundallah (a rebel group based in Iran) and various other (as yet unknown) groups claimed responsibility. The sudden emergence of new and unknown Taliban groups after the announcement of talks created positive feeling among citizens toward the Taliban, for the first time in ten years.

For the first time in a decade, it could be said that ordinary citizens have started to believe that foreign hands are behind terrorism in Pakistan. Many quarters raise the idea that the TTP could have been falsely blamed for every bomb blast in the past, since information concerning attacks was gathered from anonymous phone calls made only to the western media with callers claiming to be a TTP spokesmen. There are queries concerning the idea that the fresh wave of terrorism in the country is aimed at demonizing the TTP to pre-empt the proposed talks that could bring security and stability to Pakistan.

After the TTP denied responsibility for the recent bomb attacks, an interview appeared in Pakistani print media quoting a yet unknown spokesman of the TTP as saying that although the TTP was not involved in suicide attacks on a church in Peshawar, the attack was in line with Islamic teachings. Several Islamic scholars condemned the interview and said it was a heinous conspiracy to malign Islam and further evidence of a cover-up of the foreign hands behind terrorism. They said Islam strictly prohibits causing any harm to places of worship and that teachings on killing non-Muslim worshippers were clear.

Not guilty?

This forced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to publicly exonerate the TTP of charges of fresh terrorist acts in the country. Imran Khan went a step further and stated that he should be allowed to open an office in FATA to help create an environment to facilitate the talks. He cited the example of U.S. allowing Afghan Taliban to open offices in Doha to facilitate talks with Washington.

Adding to the confusion were the reports that cited Maulvi Fazlullah, the alleged mastermind of the attack on Malala Yusufzai, saying that he would avenge the killings of Taliban members in Swat by killing the outgoing military chief of Pakistan, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani. The general has recently announced that he will retire at the end of November after a three-year extension period in his tenure and that he would not extend it any further, as has been suggested by some reports.

A rather strange development was Malala Yusufzai’s support of the proposed talks with Taliban. In an interview with BBC, she said talks with Taliban were the best way to bring the war to an end and resolve problems. She said that holding talks was the job of Pakistani government or Washington.

Malala was seriously wounded a few months back when the Taliban tried to assassinate her for her and her family’s alleged relationship with the Western media.

It seems that present confusion over the talks with the Taliban will prevail until next month when the new Army chief, replacing General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, will take over. The new Army chief will need to decide whether he wishes to continue with Kayani’s policy and/or bring key changes that acknowledge the Taliban as stake holders in restoring peace. He should keep in mind that the U.S. was forced to acknowledge the Taliban after 12 years and a costly military campaign in Afghanistan that almost brought the U.S. to the brink of financial collapse.

Strategy

Although the Afghan Taliban has always disowned the Pakistani Taliban and remained aloof concerning their insurgency against the Pakistan army, the TTP is considered an extension or “strategic depth of the Afghan Taliban.” It is feared that if U.S. forces left Afghanistan without installing a strong, West-friendly government in Kabul, the country would soon be overtaken by the Afghan Taliban like it was before. The situation could become dangerous if the Afghan Taliban succeed in implementing their “greater strategy” which calls for the annexation of Pakistani tribal areas (FATA). Afghans have always considered FATA as their own territory and never acknowledged Durand line, the unmarked border dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan in the tough hilly terrain.

This would be even worse if the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda joined hands with the Afghan Taliban, making the region a safe haven for anti-West terrorist groups. This would disturb the global balance of power inviting another U.S.-led NATO alliance to return with a new invasion, and this time their target would be Pakistan whose nuclear arsenal would likely become insecure in the presence of a rogue government a few hundred kilometers from Islamabad.

The Afghan Taliban have continued to be considered stake holders in their country since the U.S. ousted them from power in 2001. But the Pakistani Taliban has never been in power and the idea of them being a stake holder in the country seems outlandish, especially when they refuse to acknowledge Pakistan’s constitution.

Whether Pakistan will engage the Taliban in talks to restore peace or whether it will continue to carry out a “war on terror” against them will be decided by the new army chief in the next couple of weeks.

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Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.