A month-long truce between Pakistan and the outlawed militant alliance known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) largely held into a 15th day Tuesday as the two adversaries negotiate a peace deal, with neighboring Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban mediating the talks.
The TTP, commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, comprises about two dozen banned militant groups and has been waging deadly terrorist attacks against security forces as well as civilians in Pakistan for many years.
Leaders and fighters of the militant outfit have taken refuge in Afghanistan after fleeing army-led counter militancy operations against their strongholds in Pakistani border areas. Thousands of militants were also killed in the process.
Officials in Islamabad say TTP continues to pose a threat from its sanctuaries on the Afghan side and approached the neighboring country’s new Taliban government to help contain the threat.
Amir Khan Muttaqi, the foreign minister of the Afghan government, confirmed during his official visit to Islamabad earlier this month his government had brokered the peace talks and the ensuing temporary truce. Muttaqi did not elaborate further but said they were hopeful the process would produce a settlement.
Pakistani officials privy to the meetings with TTP insisted the talks “are still at a very early stage” and “it is too soon” to expect any progress or discuss possible outcomes.
A security official told VOA the government has initiated the process only to determine whether TTP militants are willing to “surrender to Pakistan’s constitution, submit themselves to the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) to obtain national identification cards” and lay down their arms.
“These are the red lines for advancing the dialogue,” emphasized the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the status of the peace effort.
TTP has long demanded the government withdraw troops from northwestern districts lining the border with Afghanistan and restore the traditional semiautonomous status of the region that once served as strongholds for local and foreign militants, including the Afghan Taliban. TTP has also called for implementing an Islamic system in Pakistan in accordance with the group’s own interpretation of Islamic law.
But Pakistani officials have long rejected as unacceptable those demands, ruling out any discussions on the constitution, the status of the troops or the border districts that once served as TTP strongholds and also provided sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban.
“The aim of the 30-day cease-fire is to see whether or not they (TTP) are serious and want to carry the process forward,” Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security advisor, told a local television channel last Saturday. “But there is nothing significant that can be shared at this stage in terms of progress in the talks,” he said.
“The red lines are very much clear; no-one would be allowed to challenge the Pakistani constitution, impose their own system of governance or law and resume violent activities,” Yusuf added.
Pakistan maintains that hardcore TTP members who are involved in serious crimes against the state will have to face legal proceedings, but “foot soldiers” of the group could be offered an amnesty in the event of a deal to encourage them to reconcile and restart living peacefully in Pakistani society.
The temporary truce went into effect from November 9 – December 9 after the government reportedly freed an unknown number of prisoners of the militant outfit. TTP spokesman Muhammad Khurasani announced at the time that both sides had agreed to set up negotiating committees to try to advance the dialogue process.
In a brief statement Tuesday, Khurasani rejected as incorrect media reports the government had freed their 100 prisoners. He also denied his group has already placed any demands on the negotiating table.
“Negotiations committees have not sat at the table, so it would be premature to discuss the terms and conditions. The TTP has not yet offered any conditions,” Khurasani said.
Role of Afghan Taliban
A senior Afghan Taliban cabinet member in Kabul has offered some details about the role they are playing in facilitating Pakistan’s peace talks with TTP but he requested anonymity to protect their neutrality.
“Our role is exclusively that of a mediator and a mediator cannot take sides. We have urged both parties to demonstrate sagacity and be patient while conducting these negotiations,” he added.
“Both sides are happy that we are mediating the talks. Sometimes we sit between the two negotiating sides and sometimes we talk to both separately,” said the Taliban official.
“We have already made it clear to the TTP that whether or not they accept (Pakistan’s terms) they can no more use our (Afghan) soil against anyone,” he stressed. The Taliban cabinet member said there was a need “at this stage for tactfully” moving the process forward.
“It is not appropriate for the mediator to threaten them (TTP) with consequences like ‘we will expel you, we will crackdown on you’,” the Taliban leader said when asked if Kabul would be willing to use force at the request of Pakistan to evict TTP from Afghanistan in case the talks failed.
“The negotiations have just begun and already made remarkable progress in the shape of the month-long cease-fire,” he said.
He added the Afghan Taliban hopes the peace process would “gradually strengthen” and lead to an extension of the cease-fire. The Taliban leader said that all conflicts ultimately are brought to an end through talks because “blood cannot be washed away with blood.”
For their part, Pakistani officials remain skeptical about the future progress and whether the Afghan Taliban would crack down on TTP fighters if the peace process collapsed because of the long partnership between the two groups in their 20-year war in Afghanistan against the United States and its allies.
The officials also acknowledge that the nascent Taliban government lacks the capacity to take on militant groups like TTP as they deal with a deepening humanitarian and economic crisis facing Afghanistan.
“We cannot completely rely on the Afghan Taliban being the guarantor of any possible peace with TTP because they themselves are fighting for the survival in the wake of economic sanctions and the possibility of Afghanistan descending into chaos again is very much there,” cautioned the Pakistani official.
The United States and the United Nations have designated TTP as a global terrorist organization.
Since regaining power in Afghanistan last August, Taliban rulers have repeatedly assured neighboring countries and the world at large that no terrorist groups would be allowed to operate and threaten others from Afghan soil.
The counterterrorism pledge is part of a set of international demands the Taliban have to meet to claim a much-needed diplomatic recognition for their nascent government in Kabul.