The Paradoxes of Negotiating with Pakistani Taliban

Does the the Pakistani Taliban represent a particular, oppressed community or is it striving for an Al-Qaeda-led Islamic Emirate of Pakistan? The Pakistani government is certainly in for a very tough bargain by entering a dialogue with the TTP.

Posted on 02/14/14
By Imtiaz Gul | Via The Friday Times
Policemen stand at the site of a terrorist attack on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, on February 12. (Photo via The Friday Times)
Policemen stand at the site of a terrorist attack on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, on February 12. (Photo via The Friday Times)

Writing in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History in their 2011 article titled “The Paradoxes of Negotiating with Terrorist and Insurgent Organizations”, Isabelle Duyvesteyn and Bart Schuurman maintain that such negotiations are neither as straightforward nor indeed as desirable a means of conflict resolution as they may seem.


Citing examples from various conflicts, the authors maintain that in complex and prolonged conflicts: a) negotiations may be used by the warring parties to gain time to recuperate or to prepare for a next offensive, b) negotiations can cause splits to occur in the parties conducting them, promoting more and worse violence by hardliners, and c) it has been demonstrated that successfully negotiated settlements are often brittle and frequently lead to a resumption of violence.


The authors point to the many peace agreements in the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to support their first argument, saying that warring groups did attempt to buy time through such agreements.


The Tamil Tigers did the same during the course of several years of externally-mediated negotiations with the government, until the Lankan army smashed Prabhakaran and his zealots in a crushing three-pronged operation in 2009.


The violent conduct of the TTP following the February 2009 Swat peace accord, or the surreptitious cross-border activities plus expansion of terrorist training facilities of Al Qaeda-linked Taliban factions after the 2006 North Waziristan Peace agreement, are other examples of how anti-state groups can exploit the break provided by a peace accord.


Duyvesteyn and Schuurman insist that “once negotiations have gotten underway, splits can occur in the parties conducting them, promoting more and worse violence by hardliners who oppose any kind of compromise. The suicide bombings carried out by Hamas militants during the 1990s Israeli–Palestinian peace process provide a striking example of this problem.”


The current spate of violence in Peshawar (Pakistan) and elsewhere perhaps can also be seen in this context – although the TTP denied its role in recent terrorist incidents including the two attacks on two cinemas, this deniability can hardly be taken seriously in view of the group’s past record. On many occasions it claimed responsibility for attacks it had nothing to do with, or denied involvement in attacks it was found to have carried out. Having said that, it is quite possible that some forces ostensibly opposed to the talks are out to scuttle the process.


This takes us to the second point that Duyvesteyn and Schuurman make. Using the Israeli settlement construction on the West Bank as an example, they maintain that spoilers need not be violent in nature. While peddling peace talks, Israelis continued with the expansion and thus obstructed a lasting political compromise.


In the Pakistani context, Maulana Abdul Aziz stands out as the spoiler and the major obstruction, without being violent though. Scrap the constitution, Aziz says, and replace it with his own interpretation of the Sharia. He brazenly questions the Islamic clauses of the constitution, saying most of the legislators are not even qualified to legislate according to the Sharia.


Also, both Aziz and Jamaat-e-Islami chief Munawar Hassan publicly question Pakistan Army’s actions against the TTP, saying Pakistani soldiers who were killed fighting the Taliban are not martyrs. Aziz had also issued an edict against fighting the Taliban. They have both also declared Osama bin Laden and Hakimullah Mehsud martyrs.


Private TV channels provide these Taliban apologists with hours of exposure every day, enabling them to resonate what the TTP has thus far been saying only through fax and email or video messages. Isn’t the entire process like the Shin Fen talking to the Irish Republican Army for a peace deal in Ireland on behalf of the United Kingdom, or Palestinian Al Fatah representing Israel for peace talks with Hamas?


This exposure, in fact a direct assault on the state of Pakistan, itself constitutes a big obstacle in the way of any semblance of success in the negotiations.


The third point that the authors underscore is that successful negotiations do not necessarily lead to the resolution of a conflict. It has been demonstrated that negotiated settlements are often brittle and frequently lead to a resumption of violence. In particular, compromise in states in which political power is defined in zero-sum terms, tends to lead to new rounds of fighting, Somalia, Yemen and Mali being important recent examples.


“That peace processes can arise out of such ‘mutually hurting stalemates’ is illustrated by the examples of Northern Ireland and Israel, where peace talks followed decades of violence during which neither side managed to attain a definitive advantage,” argue the authors.


Is the Pakistani state – that boasts the seventh largest nuclear-armed military – also caught up in similar paradoxes? Will the talks lead to assertion of power or surrender of authority where the non-state actors hold sway? Can the government really afford to cave in to the TTP demands such as enforcement of what the Taliban call the Sharia, or the release of high-profile prisoners? If a peace deal came through predicated on the promise of Sharia even in some northwestern regions, this would amount to a surrender by the state, and thus opening the floodgates to similar uprisings in other regions.


So whatever the outcome of the talks, this process is likely to deepen the socio-political divide that exists today between forces that are sympathetic, empathetic or directly supportive to Al Qaeda’s pan-Islamism and those segments of the society who look at these religio-political groups as a creeping monster that will take away individual liberties and subject the entire society to the tyranny of their version of Islam.


In Ireland, the talks succeeded once Shin Fen renounced violence on behalf of the IRA and agreed to talk within the law of the land. This is how the talks received widespread socio-political support. In Sri Lanka, the majority of the population was sick of more than two decades of violence and thus stayed behind the government and the army after the Tamil Tigers were eliminated in the thousands. In Chechnya, the Russian government used an iron fist to quell the rebellion in 2009, and declared victory. In the former two cases, governments managed to develop national consensus on how to deal with rebels. In Chechnya, Moscow used brute force to take the sting out of the Muslim rebels.


Unfortunately, in Pakistan there is neither a visible national consensus on talks with the TTP, nor does the state possess the technological wherewithal that the Russians deployed against Chechen rebels (though the rebellion continues to simmer even today).


In all these cases, the rebels represented big sections of a particular community, and did warrant some peace efforts at least. But does the TTP represent a particular, oppressed community at all, or is it striving for an Al-Qaeda-led Islamic Emirate of Pakistan?  The government is certainly in for a very tough bargain.


Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Center for Research and Security StudiesEmail:

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