Pakistan Kneels to the Taliban


Pakistan has been in a state of perpetual crisis for so long that it can be easy to miss the periodic lurches that bring it closer to state collapse. One such step-change is underway now, triggered by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision to hold talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  Even for a country that has history of pulling itself back from the brink, this particular lurch downwards is one of the more alarming in years.

At issue is not the talks per se, but the form they are taking, which is legitimising and emboldening the TTP. It is also the context. Sharif’s approach to the talks has raised suspicions that he is interested only in protecting Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest province and his political heartland. That in turn has exacerbated ethnic divisions, undermining further the authority and the integrity of the state. The TTP and their allies – who are demanding the imposition of their form of sharia across Pakistan – are positioning themselves to fill the vacuum.

Talks Gamble

At first glance, Sharif’s announcement last month that he would give talks with the TTP one last chance looked relatively sensible. Although Pakistan’s attitude to the anti-state militant factions that operate under the TTP umbrella has been hardening after a string of bomb attacks, there is still no consensus on how to tackle them. By offering talks, Sharif would in theory be able to drum up public support for tough action against the TTP in the event of the near-inevitable failure of those negotiations.  He would buy time to prepare for the backlash of bombings in Pakistani cities most expect will occur if and when a military operation against the TTP in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) commenced. And he would neutralize his political rivals – notably Imran Khan, the pro-talks leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which runs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The United States seems to be going along with this logic, at least judging by reports that it is holding off on drone strikes in FATA while the talks are underway to avoid providing an excuse for their failure.

The TTP, however, have turned the tables on the government. They are using the negotiations as their biggest opportunity for self-aggrandizement since their faction in Swat, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, signed a peace agreement with Pakistan in 2009.  (The Pakistan Army later cleared out the so-called Swat Taliban after they terrorized the local population and began encroaching further into the country’s heartland.)

After Sharif named a four-man committee of mostly non-government representatives to hold talks, the TTP responded in kind by appointing their own committee of mediators – thus demonstrating through the process itself their long-standing claim to be treated as equal stakeholders. Their move met with no pushback by the government. Both sides – the government committee and the mediators – include men with varying degrees of sympathy for the Taliban; thus guaranteeing that their views, rather than those of the government, would take center stage in public perception. Moreover, the TTP, and their mediators, have publicly stressed a maximalist position of imposing sharia across the country. The result has been to make more palatable what appears, only by contrast, to be a minimalist position of ceding FATA to the TTP.

Meanwhile, there is little sign of much being done to prepare for the backlash of bombings in Pakistani cities if talks fail and the army moves against the TTP in North Waziristan. A long-promised new national security plan to improve law enforcement and intelligence-gathering capabilities is still on the drawing board. The public support that would be needed to sustain a campaign against the TTP is being frittered away as the media gives increased airtime to Taliban sympathizers and even TTP spokesmen. Right-wing television anchors are only too happy to give prominence to Taliban supporters; but to ensure its message is heard across-the-board, the Taliban have also directly threatened media companies. Despite declining an offer by the TTP to be included among their nominated mediators, Imran Khan is sticking solidly to his pro-talks line.

Watching the Military

A significant part of the problem is that Sharif does not have ultimate authority over security, which rests with the military. And Sharif has reasons to be wary. When he was last prime minister in 1999, he was blamed for ordering Pakistan’s humiliating retreat from a border war with India in the Kargil region of disputed Kashmir. Later that year, he was overthrown in a coup by General Pervez Musharraf.  He is unlikely now to take the risk of demanding tough action against militants without being sure he has the military and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency solidly on his side. And nobody knows exactly what their intentions are.

For more than a decade, the military and ISI have played “Good Taliban, Bad Taliban,” preserving some proxies for use in Afghanistan or against India while fighting others who turned against the Pakistani state. This was never going to work – all these groups have links, both ideological and opportunistic.  The army appears eager to fight the TTP, which has killed many of its own men, and routinely denies giving support to those militants who remain loyal to Pakistan. Yet it continues to back or tolerate some, while fighting others. The Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network still enjoy sanctuary and a measure of active support for their insurgency in Afghanistan. The extent of this support has been a cause of bitter dispute between the United States and Pakistan in the past. Meanwhile Hafez Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group behind the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, has had a prominent public role for a while. Last month, Masood Azhar, the leader of the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad blamed for an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, resurfaced to urge a rally to take revenge against India over Kashmir. Such mixed signals over the official tolerance among the security services for militants contributes to a tortuous guessing game between politicians and the military, so that the only players with certainty of purpose are the TTP and their allies.

Saving Punjab

If Sharif’s role relative to the military is uncertain, his political position is also on weak ground.  His political support has never stretched much beyond Punjab, where his PML-N party has in the past made alliances with Punjab-based extremist groups, either for electoral gain or to keep the province quiet and insulate its economy. With the other three provinces, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan  bearing the brunt of Taliban bombings, anger against Punjab is rising, as is suspicion about Sharif’s motives in holding talks with the TTP.  Sharif’s closeness to Saudi Arabia – he went into exile there after the 1999 coup – is also unsettling to Shia and other religious minorities who are especially wary of the TTP’s Sunni agenda and have been victims of numerous sectarian attacks. It is an article of faith among many Shia that some of the factions responsible for sectarian violence receive funding from Saudi Arabia. So just when Pakistan needs a prime minister capable of uniting the country and laying down the political groundwork for action against the TTP, it instead has a leader who is regarded with growing resentment by those outside his core religious and ethnic base.

It doesn’t help that the TTP are wrongly identified with the Pashtun tribesmen who live in FATA because that is where the Taliban, along with their Arab, Afghan, Central Asian and Punjabi allies, have established safe havens. Events since 2001 may have molded the TTP in their current form, but historically, Punjab was the wellspring of militancy in Pakistan. Conceived by the military as a means of restraining Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan and countering India in Kashmir, this centrally created militancy was grafted onto FATA.  Over the years, traditional tribal structures eroded, creating the space for what is nowadays a complex hybrid insurgency with links throughout Pakistan. Many Punjabi militants moved to FATA over the last decade or so, fuelled by declining support for Kashmir, an eagerness to take part in the Afghan war, and ad hoc crackdowns carried out by Pakistan under international pressure.

The false equation between the TTP and Pashtun tribesmen has, however, allowed Punjab to sidestep its own role in nurturing or tolerating extremism. More dangerously, it could mean that any eventual government crackdown will specifically target Pashtuns, both inside and outside FATA, fragmenting the country further. Such fears were reinforced by comments made last month by Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah – who has campaigned publicly in the past with leaders of the Punjab-based anti-Shia group that spawned the TTP-allied Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. In an interview with The Guardian, he said the government would carry out operations in 174 areas of Punjab where Pashtuns had settled to prevent a backlash in the event of a new military operation in FATA. For a country with a terrible record of ethnic violence – from the treatment of Bengalis in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971 to the crushing of Baloch separatists – such selective targeting would only make matters worse.

Retreat of the State

The upshot of all this is that instead of using the time created by Sharif’s offer of talks to the TTP to prepare better for their failure, the state is looking more and more uncertain. The public is confused and ethnic groups divided. The prime minister is focused on his Punjab stronghold – itself only superficially safe given the large presence of militants there. Beyond Punjab, from Peshawar to Quetta to Karachi, the TTP and its allies exploit poor law enforcement to expand their influence through bombings, kidnapping and extortion.  Numerous politicians and pundits, most notably Imran Khan, continue to confuse supporters too young to remember events before 2001 by blaming the United States for all Pakistan’s problems and equating militancy with Pashtun tribesmen angered by U.S. drone strikes. The military remains as inscrutable as ever.

Meanwhile, the TTP is using the time to regroup, win legitimacy and cow Pakistanis – both individually and collectively – into ceding to their demands. With only some 35,000 fighters, they can’t overrun Pakistan.  But they don’t need to. They just need to take advantage of the vacuum opened up by a retreating state to expand their influence. Fear will do the rest.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credit: itupictures