Just as the Pakistani state was finally inching towards a limited military action against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in North Waziristan (NW) came yet another political tour de force by the Taliban. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government seems ecstatic about the ceasefire crumbs thrown its way by the TTP over this past weekend. The federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan — the mascot of the PML-N’s disastrous handling of terrorism — not just welcomed the TTP move but announced that the Pakistani forces would reciprocate and hold their fire, including the air assault. Apparently, the jihadists of the Abdullah Azzam Brigade did not receive the TTP’s ceasefire memo. The Azzam Brigade slaughtered at least 13 people, including a child, in the Jamrud district of Khyber Agency, when they bombed a polio vaccination team the very day the TTP announced the ostensible truce. Subsequently, the TTP’s splinter group, Ahrar-ul-Hind, rained death in Islamabad.
Mr Nisar Ali Khan has not, however, let the Jamrud and Islamabad tragedies dampen his enthusiasm one bit. His ministry issued a statement that “following the Taliban’s positive announcement on Saturday, the government has decided to suspend air strikes.” He even wants the TTP to help the government apprehend the culprits! While the TTP and the government both have pretended that the terrorists’ ceasefire announcement was unconditional and altruistic, there are indications that the state halting the air strikes was one of the preconditions set by the TTP before it would announce even a temporary respite. According to certain media reports, a government official had been in direct contact with the TTP leading up to their declaration. If correct, this liaison dovetails with the suggestion by a member of the government’s negotiating team, Major (retired) Amir Shah, that the proximity committees be disbanded and the state and the TTP should hold direct talks. Whether the next round of talks is direct or indirect, the PML-N government appears set to walk into the TTP’s trap yet again.
When public opinion was shifting towards a decisive action against the TTP, especially after it slaughtered the 23 FC soldiers — a war crime by any standard — the terrorists have successfully baited the PML-N government. The PML-N has now been politically checkmated, twice in two months, by an ostensibly ragtag terrorist gang. The TTP surprised the government first by pouncing on the negotiations opportunity afforded to them by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his January 29 National Assembly speech. If the government’s objective was to divide the terrorists into the reconcilable and irreconcilable ones via the talks’ offer, it has failed miserably. The TTP, on the other hand, has used the negotiations ploy repeatedly to divide the Pakistani public and political opinion over any military action against it. The ceasefire gimmick is a slick propaganda manoeuvre by the TTP that helps build its image as a reasonable entity, with those sitting on the fence vis-à-vis a military offensive. It also helps its patrons, like Maulana Samiul Haq, and its political cheerleader Mr Imran Khan, who were on the ropes after the TTP continued its killing spree, spring back into action. Both Mr Imran Khan, who had very reluctantly indicated that he might back a limited military action, and Maulana Samiul Haq are buoyed and set to sell their poisonous pro-TTP potion again.
By all indications the TTP took a serious battering in the recent air strikes against its NW sanctuaries but, like any shrewd guerilla, it was not about to stay put in the face of state might and get decimated. With the changing political narrative coupled with the military action in NW, things were becoming untenable for the TTP. Melting away while using every ruse to gain a breather from the state’s onslaught is what it needed to do. It had to take a step back to be able to eventually spring forward again.
The TTP’s ceasefire manoeuvre appears to have gained it that reprieve. Reviving the moribund negotiations will give the TTP a further lease on life. All the terrorists need now is for the government to not any set terms for the talks. While the contours of the new détente are not clear yet, the TTP, through its political allies, will seek maximum mileage out of any renewed talks. The government’s eagerness to call off the air strikes smacks of desperation and weakness. Protecting Punjab is clearly the PML-N’s priority and the TTP is well aware of this vulnerability. The chances are that the trade off between the government and the TTP would still be about largely sparing Punjab in exchange for the status quo ante bellum elsewhere, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.
After making its views known formally and informally about the TTP, combat preparedness and the sacrifices of the armed forces, the military establishment has been mum about the new developments. I have maintained in this column that the Pakistani military is not inclined towards an all-out operation in NW and is still sticking to its dangerous distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. That policy will likely hold in the short to mid-term, the focused retaliatory and rather effective strikes against the TTP notwithstanding. In fact, the air assault without involving ground troops suggests that the security establishment does not intend to rock the whole jihadist boat as the US drawdown from Afghanistan is around the corner.
There are indications that the ‘good’ Taliban of the Haqqani Network and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group have been advised to prepare to move the bulk of their logistics across the Durand Line as soon as things are more conducive in Afghanistan. In the end analysis, this may be the only actual plan the security establishment has up its sleeve to regain the large swathes of NW that it has been leasing to its jihadist assets. It is highly unlikely that the Pakistani military establishment has the desire or the stomach to take on its ‘good’ Taliban. An exception could be if the punitive strikes against the TTP somehow suck the ‘good’ Taliban in and the limited action inadvertently snowballs into something bigger. Despite the recent sound and fury from the armed forces, their reticence suggests that the TTP’s faux ceasefire is perhaps to their liking too. Before their final face off, the army and the TTP both would rather wait and see how the chips may fall in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the TTP will continue to test the PML-N’s measly resolve despite its sneaky ceasefire.
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