Since the last All Parties Conference recognized the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan as “stakeholders” with whom to hold “unconditional peace talks”, TTP franchises have responded by launching a new wave of terror in which nearly 300 people, including 39 soldiers, have been killed in the last thirty days, a hike of nearly 40% in the number of attacks in September. The irony is that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan insist that these attacks are not the handiwork of the Taliban while the TTP leaders brazenly take responsibility for them.
Now the country’s religious leaders want the Sharif government to order an unconditional “ceasefire” of security forces in order to start the “peace dialogue”. But the TTP has laid down two core preconditions for dialogue: a withdrawal of the security forces from FATA and an end to US drone strikes against them. In fact, Maulana Fazlullah, who tried to assassinate Malala, killed innocent foreign trekkers in the northern areas, and recently assassinated a Maj-General and Colonel of the Pakistan army, has announced his intention to target-kill the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, following which he says he will launch operations to seize and occupy Swat again.
As the TTP’s warring continues, Imran Khan has suggested that the terrorists should be allowed to open an office in FATA in order to facilitate peace talks. If the Americans could enable the Afghan Taliban to open an office in Doha, he argues, why can’t we follow the same strategy against the TTP at home?
This is an outrageous, indeed dangerous, suggestion. The Taliban’s strategy is clear.
First, the Afghan Taliban are stakeholders in the continuing civil war in Afghanistan, triggered by the ouster of the Taliban regime in Kabul by American forces in 2000, in the run-up to an American withdrawal in 2014. In Pakistan, on the contrary, there is no such reason to consider the TTP as a stakeholder in any battle for Islamabad. Second, the Doha office was established outside Afghanistan in order to facilitate a dialogue with the core stakeholder Karzai regime in Kabul. But it closed down when the Karzai regime denounced the Afghan Taliban for raising their flag of the Taliban Emirate of Afghanistan over the office to signify its status as an “embassy” reflecting their sole status as legitimate rulers of Kabul. But if the government of Pakistan were to formally approve an “office” for the Taliban inside FATA, it would signal sanctioning a TTP “office” on TTP’s “sovereign territory”. In effect, this would mean that Islamabad recognizes the legitimacy of FATA’s secession from Pakistan and accepts the right of the TTP to stake a claim on the rest of the country!
In fact, this is precisely the problem. Consider.
There are three strands of terrorists among the Taliban. First, there are Mullah Umar’s Afghan Taliban based in southern Afghanistan. They are readying for a forceful attack on Kabul after US forces depart and the Karzai regime becomes vulnerable. For them, Pakistan’s North Waziristan and Balochistan provinces offer “strategic depth” bases from where to plan, organize and launch attacks inside Afghanistan. These “bases” are occupied by the Haqqani-network Taliban. Then there are the foreign Uzbeks, Chechens, Egyptians, Arabs, etc who constitute Al-Qaeda led by the Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri. These were originally based in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden when the Taliban ruled Kabul. Now they are based in Pakistan’s FATA as political commissars, planners and commandants of the Taliban forces. Then there is the third force, the TTP.
Both Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban have consciously built the TTP and facilitated its rise as a violent force for their grand regional strategy after the withdrawal of US forces from the region. Their sole aim is to help the TTP capture and retain FATA, initially as a strategic depth base area for themselves and eventually, in the event of their failure to capture Kabul, as part of a new Emirate of the Taliban incorporating Afghan areas to the south of and east of Kabul and to the north of Pakistan that are contiguous with Afghanistan. This ties in with historical Afghan claims over FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and their consistent refusal to recognize the Durand Line as the official border with Pakistan.
If the Al-Qaeda-Afghan Taliban-TTP network succeeds in establishing a safe strategic base area or Emirate-State incorporating parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, then global “Islamic” terrorists will fly in the droves to this new “country” from which to plan and launch attacks in the region and beyond. That will suck in foreign powers again. But this time it will be Pakistan with its endangered nukes and not stone age Afghanistan that will be the sole object of everyone’s grab for power or security. This is why it is critical to understand the Taliban-Al-Qaeda network as an “existential threat” to Pakistan that must be uprooted before it succeeds in destroying Pakistan. That is why full-fledged war and not unconditional withdrawal from FATA is the only answer.