Talks between the Pakistani government and the Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have got off to a rocky start.
On Friday (February 7), the firebrand cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, practically walked out of the group which the TTP had nominated from its side for talks. Earlier, the opposition figure Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek i Insaf (PTI) or Justice Movement and a longtime advocate of such talks, had refused to represent the Taliban—claiming, however, that he could speak on behalf of the government.
The talks could now be delayed, Aziz told reporters, because the government wanted them to take place within the limits of the constitution, while the TTP believed only in the Quran and Sunnah. Aziz, who won notoriety when he tried to escape security forces in a burqa (veil) during the siege of the Red Mosque in July 2007, said talks were meaningless if they didn't address Sharia (Islamic law). The leader on the government side, Irfan Siddiqi, had on Thursday clarified that the talks were to take place within the constitutional framework and that the dialogue or its results would apply only to the embattled north-western regions.
Sharia—the dividing factor
"We are as eager to enforce Sharia as the prime minister is for peace talks,” a former spokesperson for the TTP, Ehsanulla Ehsan, told a Peshawar-based journalist hours after it tossed up its nominees for talks with the government. Replacing Paksitan's "decadent colonial legacy with Islamic shariat" had been a stated goal of the TTP leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, killed in a CIA-operated drone strike on November 1, 2013.
Another TTP ideologue, Omar Khalid Khorasani, had made clear on several occasions, including in a video message released on jihadi websites in March 2012, that the Taliban sought to overthrow the Pakistan government and replace the governance system with Sharia as the supreme law. “We aim to counter the Pakistani government, its intelligence agencies and its army, which are against Islam and have oppressed the Mujahedeen,” he said.
Ehsan’s tone radiated triumphalism. In the militants’ view, by nominating a four-member team to talk to them, the government has essentially ceded authority to the negotiators over territories where the TTP says it will provide security.
So is the talks initiative doomed because of its inherent contradictions? It is certainly fraught with risks, as the TTP has moved smartly to create divisions in the religio-political right and malign the PTI.
Not only did the Taliban indulge in chest-beating over the government’s move towards talks. It virtually snubbed the toothless government team by proposing names of persons who are part of, and believers in, the state of Pakistan: the ex-senators Samiul Haq (a renowned cleric) and Prof Ibrahim, Qari Kifayatullah and Khan. Anybody agreeing to represent the TTP in talks with the government exposes a deep-seated ideological empathy for the Taliban. The non-state TTP expected these state-actors to represent its violent agenda and, by implication, support the demand for an Islamic emirate in Pakistan.
By nominating Khan, whose quest for talks has largely been misunderstood as being pro-TTP, the Taliban ostensibly attempted to discredit him—the jeers in anti-PTI ranks, though, smacked of petty-mindedness on the part of mainstream politicians. Also, in the context of relationships among the three components of the Jaimat Ulema-e-Islam organisation, the TTP knew that a JUI-F figure like Kifayatullah would not be amenable to the presence of the JUI-S chief, Haq—and will Haq agree to travel to the “lion’s den”? Nor would the JUI-F leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, swallow the insult of having been left out by both sides.
Meanwhile, the government’s negotiators do not seem to be on the same page. Will Rustam Shah Mohmand or Rahimullah Yousufzai, on the government side, take dictation from Siddiqui or from Haq? Some of them don’t have their heart in the exercise, because they believe that political parties themselves should have taken charge of the matter. It is ironic that the government absolved itself of responsibility, by picking negotiators from outside the 542-member parliament. The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, either did not find a single trustworthy member of parliament for inclusion or intentionally kept the entire parliament out of it, knowing that the move would not make much progress—and that a military crackdown could be pegged to failure.
As for the TTP, most observers familiar with its leaders and media managers believe that it most probably is not interested in talks at all. That would explain why it nominated representatives from within the state of Pakistan and then set up a nine-member committee—comprising people mostly wanted on multiple criminal charges—to monitor them.
The enigmatic talks initiative unfolded in the context of an imminent clampdown on terrorist organisations in Waziristan. Following a series of meetings with the army General Headquarters leadership immediately after a wave of attacks in mid-January, including on security forces in Bannu and Rawalpindi, the prime minister had reportedly approved in principle a decisive military action against the Taliban. Sharif thus surprised almost everyone when he announced before the parliament that talks were being given a last chance. He did not want the pro-talks politicians to blame him for resorting to the military option without having tried dialogue, insiders claimed.
The gauntlet the TTP threw at the government by nominating its committee from within Pakistan should similarly be seen in the context of the outfit’s desire to enforce Sharia throughout the country. Since Pakistani state institutions will most probably never give in to such a demand, the talks are doomed to be a non-starter.
Neither the government nor the TTP has been serious about a meeting of minds. Tough decisions, and tougher reactions, are to be expected.