Almost 10 years after the Pakistan army entered the federally administered tribal areas and 13 abortive peace accords with the Tehrik-e-Taliban militants later, Nawaz Sharif told the National Assembly recently that one more attempt would be made to resume talks. A four-member committee of interlocutors has been named, all of whom are known to have opposed the military option.
The army’s initial attempts to tackle TTP militants had mixed results. After suffering initial reverses, the morale of the forces dipped. Senior Pashtun officers began to question the wisdom of the tactics in counter-insurgency operations. In 2009, military action in Swat witnessed the implementation of a more classical military response. Larger formations hitherto reserved for facing the Indian threat were deployed and counter-terrorism capabilities were geared up through ‘clear, hold and build’ operations.The tribal militias retreated to the hills or across the border in Afghanistan when confronted by superior forces. Uneasy peace prevailed in Waziristan, but trouble erupted in Bajaur, Mohmand and Orakzai. Swat was cleared, but Maulana Fazlullah escaped to Afghanistan. In 2009-2010, the TTP started targeting military and police establishments in Rawalpindi and Lahore. Since it began to fight the Taliban, the army has suffered 12,829 casualties, including an unusually high number of officers. This has created a peculiar dilemma for the military. The army leadership is conscious of the need to maintain its image as the ‘defender of Islam’. But it also has to hit back when confronted in combat.
The civilian government appears keen to pursue peace talks with the TTP. Imran Khan of the Tehreek-e-Insaf talked of extending an olive branch to militants. Both Sharif and Khan had explored the option of roping in the Jamiat Maulanas, Fazlur Rehman and Samiul Haq, as well as the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership for mediation with the TTP. Neither Khan nor the Pakistan People’s Party seems particularly interested in bailing out the Nawaz Sharif government when it comes to speaking with one voice on terrorism. An all party meeting was held in September to bring peace to the region. However, the killing of Sanaullah Khan Niazi by the TTP and the elimination of some TPP leaders in drone attacks put paid to the hopes of the peace talks succeeding.
The new army chief, Raheel Sharif, has declared that the “military will not tolerate terror attacks and effective response will be given to the terrorists”. Subsequently, the army has hit back at the TTP. In his address to the National Assembly, Sharif was expected to declare the government’s resolve to deal firmly with the terrorists but he reiterated that an attempt would be made to resume talks with the Taliban. The TTP shura is expected to name its own representatives for the talks. The army leadership and Sharif appear to be on the same page about dealing with the TTP through a mixture of talks and firm action. But doubts remain about the efficacy of this strategy. The strategy will have to factor in the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan which is likely to boost the militants. A change of government in Kabul may not solve Pakistan’s Taliban problem either.
Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy must observe certain principles. First, terrorism must not be tolerated and the dialogue with TTP must be held within the constitution. Second, the primacy of the State must be asserted over all organizations. Third, the confusion over whether this is a problem of capacity or policy, must end. Pakistan faces different kinds of strife. Hence different strategies would be needed to deal with them. Whether Pakistan’s politicians and its army respond in unison to these threats is the moot question.