The story so far: On June 29, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, chief of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) during an interview on YouTube said that the group would not back down from its primary demand for reversal of the merger of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in 2018. This statement comes amid ongoing negotiations between the government of Pakistan and the TTP in Kabul with the Afghan Taliban’s interim government facilitating the negotiations. On June 2, the TTP announced an "indefinite ceasefire" given the "substantial progress" made in talks with the government during a round of meetings. This announcement came a day after a 50-member jirga (tribal council) comprising elders of major tribes and clans from KP visited Kabul and held talks with the TTP leaders.
Negotiations between the TTP and the Pakistan government have been held since 2007. However, the talks have failed to bring stability and peace. The first round of negotiations with the TTP took place in May 2007 when a nine-point peace deal was reached wherein the TTP agreed to stop attacks on security forces and government installations. They stated that they would not disturb peace in the region. Similar talks took place in 2008, 2011, 2013, and 2014 during which the TTP agreed to denounce militancy and condemned the elements involved in attacks on state institutions, police and other law-enforcement agencies.
The latest round of talks began in 2021 after Pakistan President Dr. Arif Alvi suggested that the government could consider giving amnesty to those members of the TTP who have not remained involved in "criminal activities" and who lay down their weapons and agree to adhere to the Constitution. Following this, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government under Imran Khan announced that they were holding talks with the TTP so that its members may surrender and reconcile in order "to be able to live like ordinary citizens."
During the talks, aside from the TTP’s primary demand for reversal of the merger, it is also insisting on the withdrawal of security forces from the tribal districts, amnesty for its fighters and the enforcement of Sharia in the Malakand Division. Conversely, the government has maintained that all negotiations would take place within the framework of the Constitution.
The TTP’s main demand has been the reversal of the merger of FATA with the KP province. The TTP has been persistent because of many reasons. Despite the fact that the TTP is not a monolithic group, the most powerful factions within it have been the Mehsud Group which consists mostly of Pashtuns, an ethnic group present mostly in FATA and the KP regions of Pakistan. Thus, the FATA regions give the TTP recruitment and operational leverage due to the concentration of indigenous and migrant Pashtuns whose unique political grievances the TTP exploits. Secondly, the FATA region offers the TTP operational leverage due to its trans-national operational potential and its ability to use Afghanistan as a safe haven by exploiting its cross-border, trans-national linkages with ethno-militant groups such as the Haqqani Network.
The state’s endgame involves convincing the TTP to agree to a long-term cease-fire as well as dissolving its organisation so that they may join mainstream politics. It is for this purpose, the state has once again reopened channels of communication. The negotiations with the TTP have been carried out largely by the Pakistan military and intelligence services.
The military has been authorised to hold talks with the TTP and report back on the progress of the talk, following which the issue will be debated in Parliament. The previous PTI government had a softer approach while negotiating with the TTP, however, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s ruling coalition has taken a harder stance. The next phase of the negotiation would be shaped by the domestic politics at play in Pakistan. However, with the TTP setting impossible conditions, the state is once again posed with a challenge on how to reach an understanding.
Civil society and experts have argued that militant groups should not be allowed to dictate how the state and its security forces operate. Moreover, they raised questions as to whether the state is willing to forgive a group that has the blood of thousands of citizens on its hands. The initial round of negotiations initiated by Imran Khan was heavily criticised due to the lack of accountability and the secrecy around the talks. Additionally, the people remain apprehensive about the TTP's willingness to give up completely given that the group has been responsible for some of the most atrocious acts of terrorism in Pakistan. Moreover, civil society has demanded more transparency in the talks with the TTP.
The Afghan Taliban has played the role of a mediator in the ongoing negotiations. They have maintained that they will not act against the TTP on Pakistan’s wishes and that if a deal was to be made with the group, Islamabad would have to make significant concessions. The Taliban’s role in the negotiations stem from Pakistan’s pressure to bring the TTP to the negotiating table and its long-standing support for the TTP, which is appreciated for its contribution in fighting alongside the Taliban against the U.S. and the former Afghan government. However, the Taliban’s position remains unclear as siding with the TTP’s demands while beneficial could also pose a threat if the TTP controls the entire territory it is demanding.
The author is a Research Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru