Pakistan’s talks with the TTP are not making headway!

Four top Pakistani Taliban commanders were reportedly killed (9 August 2022) in an explosion triggered by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in the Birmal area of Afghanistan’s Paktika province.The four were senior leaders of the proscribed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and included Maulvi Abdul Wali aka Maulvi Omar Khalid Khurasani, Mufti Hasan, Hafiz Dawlat Khan and the son-in-law of Abdul Wali. The four were travelling in a vehicle in Paktika province where they died in a mysterious blast. The TTP has stated that “We started investigations to ascertain who could have been involved in their killings. After the investigations are complete, we will issue a detailed statement whether to continue the peace talks with Pakistan”.

Since their onset, the Pakistan Army-TTP talks have remained shrouded in secrecy with Islamabad concealing both the aims of the negotiations as well as what it is willing to offer the TTP. Reports suggest that Pakistani military negotiators, led by Lt. Gen. Faiz Hamid, a former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and current commander of the Army’s Peshawar (XI) Corps, offered to accommodate the TTP with a safe passage back to Pakistan from Afghanistan in exchange for the TTP agreeing to a long-term ceasefire, dissolving its organization and joining mainstream politics.

The TTP currently has two major demands. First, a substantial reduction of Pakistani military forces from the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). Second, it wants the 2018 merger of the tribal areas into mainland Pakistan through an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution — known as the FATA merger — reversed. While Pakistani negotiators are apparently  open to a reduction of military forces in FATA, the merger reversal demand appears to be a bridge too far. For its part, the TTP insists that the FATA merger reversal is non-negotiable.

Gen. Hameed’s representatives who had gone to Kabul told the TTP leadership that the talks between them should be carried out without involving Sirajuddin Haqqani and Afghan Taliban, unlike the last time. However, this was rejected by the TTP leadership who insisted on having the Afghan Taliban as a mediator. The second condition was that the TTP should announce a ceasefire, was also rejected and in turn the Pakistan Army representative was asked to fulfill the promises made during the December 2021 ceasefire agreement, which was called off after one month with TTP blaming GHQ, Rawalpindi, reneging on its commitment.

Maulvi Abdul Wali was a founding member of the TTP, a conglomeration of all Pakistani militant factions, when it was formed by Baitullah Mahsud in December 2014 in North Waziristan. Wali was close to Mahsud and was made the TTP chief for Mohmand tribal district. In 2014, he developed differences with the TTP leadership, then headed by Maulana Fazlullah of Swat, and was expelled from the militant network. He then formed his own faction, TTP-Jamaat-ul-Ahrar that restricted its activities to his native Mohmand tribal district, and its adjoining Charsadda and Peshawar districts. He was accused of masterminding and organising several attacks in Mohmand, Charsadda, Peshawar, and Mardan districts. He had also claimed some deadly attacks in Punjab and Sindh provinces when he headed his splitter group- TTP-JuA. In Pakistan, he was wanted by the government for several terrorist activities and had mentioned him in the Red Book of Most Wanted High Profile Terrorists.

He re-joined the TTP after the current leader Noor Wali Mehsud took over in 2018. Khorasani was a harsh critic of the government in Pakistan and had consistently opposed negotiations between the TTP and Islamabad. In March 2018, the US State Department’s Reward for Justice placed a US $3 million bounty on Wali’s head. TTP sources said it was the second attack on their members of the peace negotiation committee. Before this, a prominent militant Taliban commander Maulvi Faqir Mohammad was targeted by a drone in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in which he narrowly escaped.

Maulvi Faqir Mohammad was among the senior TTP leaders and was presently playing a crucial role in the peace process with Pakistan. Members of the Pakistani negotiation committee also told The News that Maulvi Faqir’s role was helpful in the talks. His elder brother in Bajaur is also a member of the Pakistani jirga. Taliban sources said that Maulvi Abdul Wali, Mufti Hasan and Hafiz Dawlat Khan had many enemies in the past, particularly when they parted ways with the mainstream TTP and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

The timing of the killings of the TTP commanders indicates two things. First, the US is back in the game in Afghanistan, having got rid of Ayman Al-Zawahari. Second, and more importantly for Pakistan, the killings are likely to put a spoke in the ongoing negotiations between the Army and the TTP. The killing of the TTP commanders is also indicative of an internal rift within the TTP. There were suspicions among the TTP’s leadership, about Hassan and Dawlat’s allegiance due to their past links with Islamic State. In some circles, Hassan had been accused of having ties to the Western-backed Afghan government that was ousted by the Afghan Taliban in August 2021.

In one big change, Lt. Gen. FaizHameed Peshawar Corps Commander who was seen as the architect of the peace process has been transferred from Peshawar in the wake of the killings on 8 August 2022. Hameed had recently met the TTP chief in Kabul during which they agreed on the terms of a possible permanent truce. His transfer raised questions about the future of the talks with the TTP. The current negotiations with the TTP, as they progress appear to show the group’s ambitions to become a more formidable political actor with a degree of regional autonomy in Pakistan reached through a settlement. Additionally, militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan are learning that short, intense bursts of violence can enable major political gains. This trend if it continues will have implications for regional security. Pakistan is therefore likely to witness more attacks by the TTP in the coming days.

TTP Mohmand chief Omar Khalid Khorasani, aka Abdul Wali Mohmand (Photo Credit: Rewards for Justice website of US government)

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