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By Ambreen Agha
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management

The brouhaha over the impending ‘peace talks’ between Nawaz Sharif led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Government and the Hakimullah Mehsud led Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) seems to have subsided for some time now.

On August 31, 2013, TTP ‘spokesperson’ Shahidullah Shahid denied any level of talks with the Government, adding that no contacts had been made between the two sides, and that no offer of talks had been received. In an official acknowledgment, referring to reports of talks between the two sides, Federal Minister for Interior Nisar Ali Khan Chaudhry confirmed, on September 1, 2013, “These reports are baseless as the decision to talk with the TTP would be taken during the All Parties’ Conference (APC) after taking political parties into confidence.”

Interestingly, these two statements are in stark contrast to what Federal Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid had stated on August 30, 2013: “Headway has been made with respect to informal contacts between the Government and the Taliban... The process for evolving peace formulas has been started so that chaos and violence could be eliminated which has cost us thousands of lives.” And unnamed senior TTP leader confirmed, on the same day, that initial contacts between the two sides had been established and that the talks encompassed a wide range of issues, including prevention of sectarian violence and snapping of ties with al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

Since the days of his campaign for the May 2013 General Elections, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed the desire to hold talks with the terrorist leadership. Not surprisingly, on August 19, 2013, in his first televised address to the nation after taking office on June 5, 2013, Sharif called for dialogue with the terrorist formations, primarily the TTP, to end bloodshed. He also warned that his Government would use force to stamp out terrorism from the country. The Hakimullah Mehsud-led TTP rejected that offer on August 24, 2013, and expelled the ‘chief’ of TTP’s Punjab Chapter (also known as the Punjabi Taliban) Asmatullah Muawiya who had welcomed the offer of talks by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on August 20, 2013. Muawiya had, however, rejected the move, declaring that the Punjabi Taliban is a separate group and it has its own decision-making body to decide leadership and other matters. Clearly, the TTP was not willing to engage in any level of talks with the Government unless it had secured its own perceived ‘interests’, even at the cost of internal bickering.

Even earlier, on February 3, 2013, TTP had expressed willingness to hold talks with the Government, but on two preconditions: the release of seven of its leaders and guarantees by leaders of PML-N, Jama’at-e-Ulema Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) and Jama’at-e-Islami (JeI) that the exercise would be fruitful.  In a video message released in Peshawar, TTP’s then ‘spokesman’ Ehsanullah Ehsan declared, "The release of Muslim Khan, Maulvi Omar and five other TTP leaders is a prerequisite for talks, while former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Syed Munawar Hasan should be the guarantors." He added that the release of Muslim Khan and Maulvi Omar was essential, because they would be TTP's main negotiators.

However, the TTP’s position was reversed after the killing of its ‘deputy chief’ Wali-ur-Rehman, in a US drone attack in the North Waziristan Agency of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on May 29, 2013. On May 30, 2013, Ehsan said, “We had made a sincere offer of peace dialogue with the Government but we strongly believe that the Government has a role to play in the drone strikes. That is why the Taliban central shura has decided to completely cancel the offer. This is now a final decision. We will teach a lesson to Pakistan and United States for depriving us of our leader.” Khan Syed replaced Wali-ur-Rehman as the ‘deputy chief’ soon after.

After Prime Minister Sharif took over, his offer of talks was thought, by certain quarters, to be a welcome move. Subsequent later political and other developments, however, exposed the resulting bewilderment within the ruling classes and the internal fractures within the TTP. The prospects of peace talks were quickly muddied by ever changing official statements and a visible hardening of the TTP position.

In the past as well, the Government had made attempts at striking several peace deals, but with little success. On October 2, 2011, the then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had made a similar offer, declaring that his administration was ready to hold negotiations with all militant groups, including TTP. Accepting the offer, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, TTP’s Bajaur chapter ‘deputy commander’ and ‘commander-in-chief’, on October 3, 2011, declared, “TTP welcomes the Prime Minister’s offer.” The deal was quickly stalled after Faqir Muhammad set two impossible preconditions for talks: the Government should redefine its relationship with the US; and enforce Islamic Sharia’h law in the country.

Living under perpetual threat and succumbing periodically to terrorist pressure, the civilian Government has failed to act consistently against terrorists. On August 18, 2013, following threats from Punjabi Taliban leader Asmatullah Muawiya, the Government ordered a temporary stay on execution of convicted terrorists. On August 12, 2013, Muawiya had warned, “the Government will have to pay a price” for the execution of TTP prisoners. Soon after, the executions of three LeJ terrorists, Attaullah alias Qasim, Mohammad Azam alias Sharif and Jalal alias Abdul Jalil, who were to be executed on August 20, August 21 and August 22, respectively, were stayed, and remain pending with the Government. On July 4, 2013, Pakistan had ended a moratorium on executions, which had been imposed in 2008. Indeed, while conditionally welcoming the peace talk offer on August 20, 2013, Asmatullah Muawiya had demanded an indefinite stay on all executions. No execution has occurred since the purported lifting of the moratorium.

In the meanwhile, the rampage of terrorist violence continues across Pakistan. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 4,327 persons, including 2,393 civilians, 532 Security Force (SF) personnel and 1,402 terrorists, have been killed in terrorism-related incidents in the current year alone (all data till September 8, 2013). Since the official formation of TTP on December 14, 2007, at least 42,985 fatalities have been reported in terrorism-related incidents across the country, including 14,664 civilians, 4,161 SF personnel and 24,162 terrorists.

The problem of terrorism within Pakistan is unlikely to be resolved unless the broader support the state establishment offers to a wide range of jihadist formations is not brought to an end. Pakistan continues to aggressively support terrorist formations operating against Afghanistan and India, even as it seeks to neutralize groups operating within the country. However, the distinctions between these various formations are progressively blurred; not only do they share certain ideological fundamentals there is increasing evidence of operational cooperation. The TTP presence in Afghanistan is increasingly visible, and it has widely been seen to operate in coordination with the Afghan Taliban. The group has also been making strident pronouncements on the ‘oppression of Muslims in India’ and the imperatives of jihad there, and, while there is no evidence yet of any direct operation of TTP cadres in India, the lines between TTP membership and the cadre base of groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) are far from clearly drawn.

There is little reason to believe that Prime Minister Sharif’s approach to terrorism can be substantively distinguished from the past policy of duplicity towards Islamist terrorism in Pakistan, driven by a desire to continue with jihadist mobilisation as an instrument of state policy, but to contain the blowback of violence within the country. It is, moreover, far from clear that the civilian Government actually exercises a sufficient authority on these issues, which have traditionally fallen under the sway of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and military leadership. The charade of peace initiatives cannot transform the basic realities of radicalization, extremist establishment politics, and the relentless state sponsorship of terrorism in Pakistan. Unless these realities are addressed, it is unlikely that Pakistan will secure any greater relief from the scourge of its own creation.

[Source: SATP]

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