An NRO appears to be in the offing, in the form of the government’s proposals for amnesty to the militants of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). New logic, explanations and justifications are being woven by all those government officials who, till yesterday, took no time in blaming this militant outfit as an agent of the Indian and former Afghan intelligence agencies. TTP is probably the only militant organisation that, despite committing heinous atrocities against the country, its citizens and the armed forces, still enjoys a reputation of a contradictory nature; admired by the right-wing fundamentalists and despised by the liberals.
Call it a misfortune or a coincidence that no matter what steps the prime minister takes, they turn out to be his U-turn from what he said or pledged earlier. No doubt he has always been an ardent supporter of negotiations with the militants but his recent move for a dialogue with the TTP is a complete reversal of his earlier position on reconciliation. In a recent interview, he has disclosed that the government is in talks with those groups of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who are seeking a reconciliation. To be more precise, it is an open offer for all militants to avail this opportunity.
‘Reconciliation’ is a word that has always been detested and abhorred by the prime minister especially when the beneficiaries were not of his choice. The national reconciliation ordinance (NRO) issued by former President and General Pervez Musharraf in 2007 had granted an amnesty to the politicians belonging to PPP and PML-N. This NRO became a popular symbol of any political negotiations that were later carried out in the country. Since his coming into power, NRO has been a buzzword for the current prime minister and he never forgets to reiterate his pledge of never awarding any ‘NRO’ to the former corrupt rulers until they bring “the looted money” back into the country.
Addressing a gathering at Chakwal University on December 26, 2020, PM Imran Khan had equated NRO with treason by saying, “If anyone grants the Opposition an NRO (i.e. concessions under a National Reconciliation Ordinance), it will be the greatest act of treason against the country. The enemy wouldn’t have acted in a way worse than such a person who lets them off the hook.”
The contemptuous feeling that the prime minister had for these political opponents was evident from each and every word he uttered during this speech. His wrath against the opposition had one more reason: and it was their unprecedented behaviour of criticizing the armed forces.
Yet these allegations and all that abhorrence, for some unknown reasons, became irrelevant when the prime minister covertly began talking to the TTP. The parameters of his judgment appeared poles apart for the militants on the one hand and his political opponents on the other, when he admitted his reconciliatory initiative with the TTP. Talking of an NRO for the TTP didn’t evoke any feeling of disdain or treason in the mind of the prime minister as it did when he talked of an NRO for the political opponents. Despite committing crimes like slaughtering military personnel and civilians, blasting holy places, and putting to death innocent people including men and women, old and young, Muslims and non-Muslims without any feeling of shame, the TTP is considered worthy for an NRO.
What led or compelled the prime minister to attempt an NRO with the TTP is a mystery that prompts a variety of questions and explanations. His supporters define it as a political approach, already tested and proven in Afghanistan, that prefers settling conflicts through negotiation rather than using military power. His opponents call it a cover-up for the soft corner that the prime minister has for the militants. Another factor that might have been more influential in this sudden change of policy is the emergence of the militants as a potential security threat soon after the signing of the peace agreement between the Afghan Taliban and United States.
In February this year, a UN report stated that five Pakistani-based militant groups, the Shehryar Mehsud group, Jamaatul Ahrar, Hizbul Ahrar, the Amjad Farooqi group and the Usman Saifullah group (formerly known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) had pledged their allegiance to TTP in July and August last year – a development that might result in enhancing their militancy in Pakistan. Pakistan quickly used this report to prove its claims that the TTP has a presence in eastern Afghanistan and the sudden upsurge in their attacks in Pakistan was the direct result of the clandestine support that the TTP received from the former Afghan intelligence and Indian intelligence agencies.
While these anti-Pakistani militant groups were reorganising themselves in Afghanistan, Pakistan was exceedingly busy in utilizing its links with the Afghan Taliban to facilitate compliance for a peace agreement and create an environment where intra-Afghan dialogue and a withdrawal of US forces could be arranged peacefully and successfully. The unexpected fall of the Afghan government turned the tables in favour of the Afghan Taliban and all other militant groups based in Afghanistan, with a resultant negative impact on Pakistan. Fatalities amongst security personnel from violence went up to 186 as on September 30, 2021 – compared to 120 recorded last year during the same period. For the first time this year, the fatalities of security personnel surpassed the number of civilian fatalities during the July-September period and this trend is still continuing.
Amidst the feelings of admiration and exultation over the success of the Afghan Taliban, security analysts and observers paid the least attention to these statistical facts. The day that the Taliban took over Kabul, they released 2,300 hardcore TTP commanders jailed by the US. It raised TTP’s strength from to some 8,230 militants. Reacting to this situation, Pakistan said that it would ask the Afghan Taliban to take action against the banned TTP. Next day, the Voice of America claimed that Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada had formed a three-member commission to investigate Pakistan’s complaints of cross-border attacks by the TTP using Afghan soil. Information minister Fawad Chaudhry added his two cents to this report by saying, “We should be satisfied to know with regards to the TTP that for the first time the process of Indian funding [to them] — which had been going on for a long time — has ended and at this time they are in disarray.”
Everything looked normal, peaceful and quite satisfactory until the spokesman of the Afghan Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, declared that TTP is solely an issue of Pakistan and they have to deal with it on their own. Adding diplomatic chicanery into his statement, he clarified the Taliban position on cross-border violence in these words; “[…] our stance is that Afghan soil will not be used by anyone to destroy the peace of another country, […] if the TTP considered the Taliban their leaders they would follow their orders.” Evidently, he was expecting but not willing to dictate the TTP to follow his group’s policy.
It goes without saying that the TTP appeared to be the most tactful and resilient group that has continued operating even after going through several military operations, particularly Zarb-e-Azb. Despite sitting in Afghanistan, they are still in a position to activate their sleeper cells in Pakistan and unleash ar wave of terror in the country: a reality that puts all security operations and intelligence reports of the country in question.
The re-emerging threat of the TTP to Pakistan is being observed very keenly by foreign observers as well. Analyzing this threat, the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) made an observation back in February 2021: “Pakistan’s poor investment in developing a much-needed countering violent extremism strategy makes it ill-equipped to respond to these challenges.”
Is the government’s effective offer for an NRO a result of the insurmountable threat of the TTP? Or is it, perhaps, a strategy of the government to bring a peaceful end to the militancy that has been plaguing the country for many years? Nothing is predictable, with one exception; any reconciliatory step without making the militants accountable for their crimes will be tantamount to an act of submission to the diktat of an intimidating force. How intelligently the government would be able to handle this most challenging task remains inconceivable in view of the moral and physical support that the TTP enjoys from the Afghan Taliban.