Last year, on December 28, Hakimullah Mehsud offered talks to the state of Pakistan, pre-conditioning them such that none, except the Taliban apologists, could have accepted the ‘generosity’. On February 3, the Mehsud group, through its spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan, again made the offer, within 24 hours of a brazen raid on a check post in Sarai Naurang.
The offer comes through a video message. Sitting next to Ehsan in the video is Adnan Rashid, another terrorist on death row who was sprung from Bannu Jail last year. The talks offer and the message are audacious. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has dismissed it as a joke. The army has shown no interest in it.
So, what did the Mehsud group gain out of it?
This is where we have to appreciate the subtle strategy that informs this offer. It is structured to play on the fissures within Pakistan’s state and society. To that extent, while reject the offer we must, it is important, nonetheless, to understand the strategy.
First, like before, this offer for talks is conditional on the state of Pakistan conceding certain pre-talks demands. However, the demands this time are different. They relate to the release by the government of Muslim Khan and Maulvi Omar along with five other Taliban commanders. All these prisoners belong to Fazlullah’s group. Two of these prisoners, Muslim Khan and Omar, are to be the lead negotiators from the Taliban side. This is the ‘political’ committee.
And who will they negotiate with — the government? Perhaps, the army? No. They will negotiate with three guarantors chosen by the Mehsud group. Unsurprisingly, they include Syed Munawwar Hasan, the Jama’at-e Islami (JI) amir, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of his faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F), and somewhat surprisingly, Mian Nawaz Sharif, chief of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). [NB: the JI amir has refused to be a guarantor on behalf of the government but Rehman has kept his options open. His jetting to Doha is another story!]
The strategy betrays some smart thinking. The Mehsud group, which has earlier attacked everyone, including the PML-N, the JI and the JUI-F, is now seeking support for containing the push against it by reaching out to the Right (the religio-political parties) and Centre-Right political forces, notably the PML-N. Interestingly, Imran Khan, the most vocal proponent of talking to the Taliban, has been excluded.
This shows a clever understanding of Pakistani politics, especially PML-N’s politics, and the civil-military divide. As for Khan and his PTI, the group knows that negotiating with the Taliban is an important plank of his politics. Even if he is excluded, he has travelled far enough on the negotiations road to make an about-face. But keeping him out of the list makes it easier for Nawaz Sharif to take the lead on the offer.
The government and its allied parties are excluded, as is the army, which Ehsan criticised bitterly and deliberately. The MQM was threatened again. As for the ANP, the killing of Bashir Bilour was a clear signal to the party, though some even within the ANP are not averse to talking.
Nawaz Sharif and Fazlur Rehman already favour talks with the Taliban and have asked the government to take the offer seriously. If Sharif begins to make more reconciliatory noises towards the Taliban, given his party’s political clout, his support could add immense value to the Taliban strategy in terms of creating a public buy-in for negotiating with the Taliban. And if his party were to win the elections and form a coalition with right-wing parties, the hue of the game could change.
The stick behind this Mehsud group offer is the threat of terrorist attacks. The idea is to put the onus for such attacks on the government. This is also clear from what Ehsan said in his video message, pointing to the fact that the government is not taking the offer seriously. The argument would be: we offered to talk but we didn’t find a partner in peace.
Add to this the voices from the right — the JI and the JUI-F — and a public wary of and worn by bloodshed could begin to fault the government for not taking the reconciliation course. Any student of counter-insurgency and counterterrorism knows how important it is to retain the support of the people. No one can fight among the people without their support.
The TTP terror groups know they have been losing public support. They need to regain that support. The terror groups don’t have a political presence. They have to rely on political entities to reach the people. The offer of talks through a ‘political’ committee and the naming of senior politicians as guarantors is their ploy to do just that.
The TTP and its various groups, especially Hakimullah Mehsud’s group, are under pressure from the army. Hakimullah’s group is also under pressure internally, within the broader TTP conglomerate. This is an effort by Hakimullah to regain ground by linking up with the Swat Taliban within the terror enterprise — to offset challenges to his leadership — and by reaching out to the political parties outside.
The group has nothing to lose and much to gain. If this strategy doesn’t succeed, they still, ceteris paribus, get a propaganda point and sow discord within Pakistan. But if Nawaz Sharif et al begin to press for talking to the TTP, the terror groups win the round without offering anything in return.
It will, of course, be a huge folly on the part of the PML-N to fall for this gambit. The TTP is trying to manoeuvre itself into gaining legitimacy a la the Afghan Taliban. This is clear from the letter they wrote to the ‘ulema’ and their attempt to ‘de-localise’ themselves by condemning France’s actions in Mali and making references to the Arab ‘spring’ and a grand coalition of the ummah.
But Pakistan is not occupied by foreign troops. The country has legitimate governance structures and surveys show that Pakistanis, leaving out the lunatic fringe, have no interest in TTP’s exclusionary ideology. If jaw-jaw they want, let them first disarm and seek amnesty.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2013.