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Islamabad's relations with Pakistani Taliban

Haroon Janjua Islamabad
August 4, 2022

The Afghan Taliban are mediating peace talks between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban, but many rights activists in the South Asian country are critical of these negotiations.

A Pakistani soldier stands guard at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman
Pakistan is wary of attacks on its soldiers by TTP militants operating in AfghanistanImage: AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan has a complicated relationship with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group with ties to the Afghan Taliban.

Islamabad banned the group in 2008. The TTP has been responsible for numerous attacks inside Pakistan, most notably the school attack in Peshawar in 2014, which killed 149 people, including 132 children.

The TTP has also attacked Pakistani soldiers and military check posts, drawing the ire of the country's army command.

In 2012, the militant group shot Malala Yousafzai, now a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, for promoting girls' education in her native Swat area, close to Afghanistan.

So, when authorities decided to engage in peace talks with the TTP, many in Pakistan condemned the decision.

No cease-fire in sight

The Afghan Taliban, who seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021, are mediating talks between Islamabad and the Pakistani Taliban. Several rounds of talks have been held in Kabul so far, but no agreement has been reached.

In May, the negotiations led to a "permanent cease-fire" in return for the release of dozens of TTP fighters and commanders. But analysts say cease-fire violations are frequent and widespread.

One of the TTP demands is to restore the semiautonomous status of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan. Islamabad merged the FATA region with its northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2018 to improve governance there.

The area is considered a safe haven for militants who operate on both sides of the border.

Last week, an eight-member team of Islamic clerics from Pakistan went to Kabul to break the impasse. However, the militant group has not shown any flexibility in its approach.

Will Pakistan border fence stop militants?

Unrealistic demands

Security analysts say the TTP demands are unacceptable for the Pakistani government.

"Pakistan wants to end its 14-year-long war with the TTP and restore peace in its border region. For that reason, it decided to engage with the militant group, with Afghan Taliban leaders acting as mediators," Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's former ambassador to the UN, told DW.

"The talks have been frustratingly slow and difficult, though. The main sticking points are demands by the TTP to reverse FATA's merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, imposition of Shariah law in the area, and the withdrawal of Pakistan's military forces from the border region," she said.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he was skeptical about the outcome of the talks. "The TTP has asked for the moon, making demands that Pakistan is unlikely to agree to. And the TTP is not willing to make concessions. And if somehow there is a deal, there's little reason to believe it'll stick, given that in the past the TTP has reneged on all agreements and returned to violence," he told DW.

"It's hard to imagine Islamabad giving in to the FATA merger reversal demand. It must surely know that this would be a huge win for the TTP, because less governance and a weaker state writ will provide the perfect conditions to allow it to strengthen and impose its will. I really don't see Islamabad giving in," Kugelman added.

TTP causing friction between Islamabad and Afghan Taliban

Why is Pakistan so keen on having a deal with the TTP?

"Pakistan was compelled to initiate talks was the TTP because of an increase in attacks in the country. There is no viable alternative to put an end to this violence," Saman Rizwan, an Islamabad-based policy research analyst, told DW.

Kugelman said Pakistan was acting out of desperation. "It knows the TTP has become a resurgent force, ramping up its attacks in a big way. And it knows the Taliban in Afghanistan won't do anything to curb the group, which is based in Afghanistan. This leaves talks, which is an imperfect option, but really the only option at this point," Kugelman underlined.

Pakistani soldiers have come under increasing attacks from the TTP in the past few months. In April, seven soldiers were killed in an ambush by the militant group near the Afghan border.

Pakistani authorities have erected a long fence along the nation's border with Afghanistan, but the attacks have not halted.

Lodhi believes that the TTP issue is also creating friction between Islamabad and the Afghan Taliban.

"Although Pakistan wants cooperative relations with Kabul, ties may become testy in the future. This is because of Islamabad's rising concern over the surge of cross-border terror attacks since the Taliban assumed power. Hopes that a Taliban government would help Pakistan secure its western border have not materialized. TTP Pakistan continues to be based in Afghanistan and conduct attacks from there," she said.

Husain Haqqani, the director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, believes that Islamabad could launch targeted airstrikes against TTP havens inside Afghanistan should the Taliban fail to deliver a deal.

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Haroon Janjua
Haroon Janjua Journalist based in Islamabad, focusing on Pakistani politics and societyJanjuaHaroon