Originally Published 2013-10-01 05:36:38 Published on Oct 01, 2013
Going by the frequency and nature of the TTP attacks, the militant group seems to be playing a larger game aimed at drawing the armed forces deeper into a protracted conflict in the tribal areas with the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in mind. For the Nawaz Sharif government, and the military, the options are fast running out.
Sharif's TTP challenge
"The recently achieved consensus between the army and the civilian leadership about opening a dialogue with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) could not stand up to the violence unleashed by TTP soon after. The killing of a senior Army General and the subsequent bombing of a church in Peshawar tore a glaring divide between Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

After weeks of parleys and backroom discussions, the army and the Nawaz Sharif government had come around to offering an olive branch to TTP, the most vicious anti-Pakistan terrorist group active in the tribal areas. The TTP leadership had shown some interest in the dialogue but not without first getting a long list of demands accepted by both the military and the civilian leadership. The terrorist group wanted the security forces to stop all operations against it in the tribal areas, withdraw from the area and release all TTP prisoners.

Although Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s newly unveiled counter-terrorism policy called for strong action against all terrorist groups and their support structures, he was not sure of achieving such an objective without getting the military on board. The army, on the other hand, bloodied by relentless attacks against its personnel and offices by TTP since 2007, was apprehensive of getting trapped in the tribal areas if a military offensive were to be launched. The past failures to rein in the terrorist group through military means were constant reminders of repeating the folly. So, even as General Ashfaq Kayani, made strong noises against TTP, he refused to move his troops stating that he would first need a nod from the civilian government.

But Kayani, however, made it clear that he was not on board with the dialogue once Major-General Sanaullah, General Officer Commanding 17 Division, Swat, was killed. The General said the killers would not go unpunished. In a statement, he said "no one should have any misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms. The army has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists". Media reports suggest that General Kayani has ordered a renewed military operation against TTP in Dir district in the coming days.

TTP, on the other hand, has refused to take the blame for the church attack. But two offshoots of the Pakistan Taliban called Jundullah and Jand-ul-Hafsa have claimed responsibility. This highlights the dilemma of who to talk to, in case the peace talks are held.

What has made the challenge even more difficult for the state is the fractious nature of the militant group. TTP had begun as an umbrella group in December 2007, gathering under its wings diverse militant groups operating in the tribal areas since 2001, many of them with links to the Taliban and al Qaida. Although these groups had accepted the leadership of Mehsud tribal chiefs, there have often been minor and major clashes within over the ’spoils of the war’ and on the issue of attacking Pakistan Army. It is therefore difficult to know exactly who commands TTP today and what is the nature of the alliance the Miramshah Shura has with other militant groups spread across Durand Line.

There is clear division within the group about talking to the Pakistan establishment. In the past also, the militant group had made reconciliatory noises only to abandon the process, most often by carrying out spectacular attacks against the security forces or against ’soft targets’ which challenged the state’s resolve. The dissent came out into the open in August when the Punjab TTP chief, Asmatullah Muavia, was expelled from the group for approving the peace talks with the Nawaz Sharif government. Muavia responded by saying that TTP cannot expel him since he ran an autonomous militant group.

Similarly, there are elements within the government that do not want to engage with the militants. There is deep scepticism about the outcome of the peace gesture from the Sharif government. There is a fear that the dialogue process will give the militant group more time to regroup and recalibrate its actions against the state. The military leadership is also equally apprehensive about TTP’s intentions and its inflexible stance on its pre-negotiation demands. The killing of the Major General has only strengthened these apprehensions.

The consensus within the civilian government is, also breaking up with Imran Khan wanting to pursue peace talks and Nawaz Sharif taking on a more rigid stance against the violence. Kayani has warned the government that there are elements under the umbrella of the Pakistan Taliban that will never reconcile. As per past experience, the militants will not lay down their arms and disengage from the Al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. It is also highly unlikely that they will accept the Pakistan Constitution and lay aside their demands for a Shariah-based system in the country.

The recent attack on the church has brought into focus the militant activity against minorities in the country. At this stage, a pro-talks stance by the government could lead to alienation of these minorities.

If talks are to take place then the government must force the militant groups to the negotiating table and not allow itself to be steamrollered into a skewed deal favouring the Taliban. The strategy of the government to try and separate the ’bad’ Taliban from the ’tolerable’ groups has proved unsuccessful. For talks to succeed, the government must be in a position of strength where it can make offers that the militants cannot afford to refuse and that seems unlikely.

TTP has not shown any sign of halting its attack on the state. More than 3000 persons have died in various militant and sectarian incidents in Pakistan in 2013 (till August) alone, many of them carried out by TTP. Going by the frequency and nature of these attacks, TTP seems to be playing a larger game aimed at drawing the armed forces deeper into a protracted conflict in the tribal areas with the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in mind. For the Nawaz Sharif government, and the military, the options are fast running out. If TTP continues to target the people and state, Prime Minister Sharif will have to take the tough call—send in the army.

(Taruni Kumar is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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