Last September, dozens of leading Pakistani politicians met in Islamabad for nine hours at an All Parties Conference on national security. There, they resolved to “give peace a chance” and pursue a negotiated settlement to the wars in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A year later, one must ask whether it is worth giving peace a chance — whether the Taliban on both sides are indeed ready for peace.
In Afghanistan, the war rages on. Exploratory peace talks between the US and the Taliban have stalled. The Taliban fight-talk strategy involves mainly fighting and little talking. But Mullah Omar, in a recent Eid statement, continues to speak of Afghan unity and states that the Taliban “does not think of monopolising power”. The group, in its public statements, continues to describe itself as interested in evicting a foreign presence and sharing power with other factions inside Afghanistan. Putting the veracity of these statements aside, the fact that they are being said is significant. It clearly contrasts with the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the border.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) continues its war against the Pakistani state while its ally, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, proceeds with a campaign to murder Shia Muslims, especially in Gilgit-Baltistan and the greater Quetta area. The TTP, taking advantage of safe havens in Afghanistan, resurge in Bajaur and are letting the world know this with its own particular form of depravity.
A recent TTP video depicts Taliban fighters standing before 12 severed heads, all of kidnapped Pakistani soldiers. The visuals look unreal, as if the heads are merely props from a movie set laid out on grass. But the ugly reality becomes clear as the TTP fighters show photos of the slain army men in uniform. There is something distinct about the depravity of the TTP.
The Taliban in Afghanistan are not some simple group of benign ‘freedom fighters’. Recently, in Kandahar, two Taliban commanders executed 17 civilians for spying for the United States, merely a cover for their killing of a woman among them whom they fought over. These acts most likely point towards growing insubordination in the Afghan Taliban ranks as Mullah Omar has called for avoidance of civilian casualties. But they do point towards militancy as an inherently destabilising phenomenon — one that consumes populations on both sides of the Durand Line.
It has and must be asked again of politicians like Imran Khan, how he plans to make peace with the TTP when it does not seek peace with him. Tactical truces with Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazir might allow the Pakistan Army to focus its efforts on the TTP. But none of the madmen in North Waziristan — including the Haqqanis — have any sense of fealty to the Pakistani state. The TTP and a host of other jihadist splinter groups hide in their midst and plot attacks nationwide. What the TTP seeks is not merely an end to Pakistan’s cooperation with the US: the al Qaeda-allied organisation seeks to take over the state and establish a caliphate that makes its barbarity the law of the land. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the TTP makes no claim of a desire to share power. It is a pure, unadulterated hegemony-seeking force.
An end to the US-led war in Afghanistan will take the air out of the jihadist mania that has ravaged Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But that end must involve a phased withdrawal that leaves behind an Afghanistan governed by a broad-based peace accord including all ethnic and religious factions. Absent such a deal and Afghanistan will descend into chaos, and the ugliness that one sees in Bajaur today will likely amplify. While the United States has few good options in Afghanistan, Pakistan will lose more from a precipitous US withdrawal. Imran Khan’s push for peace in Fata means little without efforts to reach the same in Kabul. And achieving peace in Kabul requires engaging meaningful engagement with Washington before the clock runs out.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2012.