Prime Minister Imran Khan’s revelation that some of the “Pakistani Taliban groups want to talk to our government” and that “we are in talks with some of the groups” has predictably created controversy.
Speaking to TRTWorld, a Turkish TV channel, Khan commented that “then we forgive them; they become normal citizens.” Khan’s political opposition has since blasted him for his “unilateral decision to offer amnesty” to the TTP, conducting “secret talks” with a terrorist group, and failing to take parliament into confidence.
When the interviewer asked Khan if he believed an agreement was possible, Khan said: “I don’t believe in military solutions; I am anti-military solutions. So, I always believe as a politician [that] a political dialogue is the way ahead which I always believed was the case in Afghanistan.” The interviewer pressed his point: why was the TTP attacking Pakistani security forces if his government was talking to them. Khan’s response: “I think that was just a spate of attacks but we are talking; we might not reach some sort of a conclusion in the end, but we are talking.”
The issue was further complicated when responding to criticism Sheikh Rashid, the interior minister, told the media the talks were being conducted at the ‘highest level” and only with the “good Taliban”. He did not explain what he meant by the “highest level.”
So what should one make of Khan’s ‘revelation’, to use the interviewer’s word, and his explanation?
Short answer: irresponsible.
Let’s now get to the long answer, starting with some background.
Pakistan got the Haqqani Network to talk to the TTP in September-October 2020, shortly after the TTP, which was in disarray and had splintered, brought two groups, Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) back into its fold. The idea seemed to be to probe and see if there were any reconcilable elements the state could talk to. Implied in this approach was the dividend that if the process succeeded in identifying elements that were prepared to relinquish violence, the TTP could again be splintered and put on the back foot.
By December 2020, the approach had failed to produce the desired results. Meanwhile, the TTP, since the merger, has mounted several attacks against targets inside Pakistan and claimed responsibility for them. Ditto for Islamic State-Khorasan, which predominantly comprises fighters from Pakistani terrorists groups affiliated with the TTP franchise, Lashkar-e Islam, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, besides other foreign nationals. (The details of IS-K’s TTP affiliations are many and complicated so I will eschew them here.)
Come April this year, the Afghan Taliban were making major advances in Afghanistan. While Pakistan was facilitating US-TTA talks and safe withdrawal for US forces, as also the intra-Afghan talks, one of its demands from the TTA was to ensure that the TTP and IS-K are denied the use of Afghanistan’s soil to plan attacks against Pakistan’s interests. Around June, the TTA had formed a three-member “commission” for this purpose which was negotiating the terms of surrender with the TTP. During this period, according to some high-level sources in Pakistan, TTA fighters also clashed with and killed some TTP fighters.
After the fall of Kabul to the TTA, Pakistan began putting more pressure on the Afghan Taliban to sort out the TTP problem. The TTA gave the TTP a month to work out a mechanism of reconciliation with Pakistan, surrender and return to their areas.
This is the bird’s-eye view of what has been — and is — happening with reference to the TTP and potential reconcilable elements within that franchise. It may or may not work; or it may work partially. For PM Khan to speak about it publicly is not only ill-considered but a blunder one would not expect from a person in his position. Consider.
There’s been much criticism of the idea of talking to the TTP both for reasons of its past actions and its continuing attacks. Critics of talks would settle for nothing less than military/CT action against the franchise. PM Khan’s insistence that he is anti-military solutions (a fallacious view he has held for many years) and only believes in dialogue is the pendulum swinging to the other extreme. For years and years I have tried to argue and make the very simple point that CT is not about an either/or approach. You jaw-jaw and you war-war, depending on when you are chinwagging and with whom and when you are fighting and with whom. Fighting is meant to create the space for talking from a position of strength and controlling the situation.
In other words, both ends of the pendulum get it wrong.
That said, the term ‘talking’ for what’s going on is wrong. Let me explain.
By saying that “our government” is ‘talking’ to the TTP, Khan has not only all but derailed the process, but also given the false impression that Pakistan is talking to the TTP. If the idea was to ‘talk’ to the TTP, then the government should have taken the issue to other political actors. There was a reason this was not done. Pakistan is not ‘talking’ to the TTP. Negotiations mean accepting as a negotiating partner and, by extension, legitimising a terrorist franchise. Khan has done that before and he was wrong; Nawaz Sharif did it and he was wrong too. The entire idea behind the current approach was to get the TTA to deal with the TTP as an entity that the state of Pakistan considers inimical to its interests.
Put another way, Pakistan told the TTA, which now has de facto control of Afghanistan, to sort out this issue. TTP is not a partner in talks with Pakistan; it is a terrorist group that needs to be taken out. Since it is based on Afghanistan’s soil, the TTA has to deal with it. The elements that can be weaned from violence and accept the writ of the state can return; those who persist in perpetrating violence will face the full brunt of the state’s coercive apparatus. Acting against them will also be the responsibility of TTA.
I know I have said this before; I also know that there’s nothing anyone can do to make the PM understand the imperative of wise counsel in sensitive matters of state — even to get him to appreciate that every word he speaks will be weighed because he is the prime minister and, therefore, he must exercise utmost caution before saying anything. Equally, one has to continue rolling the rock up only to see it roll down because as Camus said, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”