Why negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban is a terrible idea

Pakistan Army troops patrol along the fence on the Pakistan Afghanistan border at Big Ben hilltop post in Khyber district, Pakistan on Aug. 3, 2021. (Anjum Naveed/AP)
Pakistan Army troops patrol along the fence on the Pakistan Afghanistan border at Big Ben hilltop post in Khyber district, Pakistan on Aug. 3, 2021. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

Back in 2007, my colleague Musa Khankhel and I were reporting in the Swat Valley, a remote part of northwest Pakistan’s tribal areas where elements of the Pakistani Taliban had just seized power. The militants noticed us when Musa started to film the hoisting of a Taliban flag on the roof of a local police station. Taliban fighters arrested us and took us to their headquarters. Here I encountered Muslim Khan, a militant leader who made his criticisms of the Pakistani army’s counterterrorism operations in American-accented English. (Musa, who knew him, explained to me that “Muslim Khan had spent many years in Boston”.)

I tried to ask this Americanized Taliban a few questions, but he politely declined. Perhaps I was lucky. This was a man whose brutal treatment of local civilians earned him the grim nickname “Butcher of Swat”. A few months later, Muslim Khan was captured by the army. In 2016, after a trial that lasted seven years, a court sentenced him to death for the murder of 31 people.

But the death sentence was never carried out, and just a few weeks ago the Pakistani government announced that they were releasing him from prison in the hope of making a peace deal with the banned group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The authorities have grown increasingly desperate to reach an agreement with the Pakistani Taliban, who has waged war on the Pakistani state for the past two decades — at the cost of at least 83,000 lives, most of them civilians.

It is entirely understandable why our political leaders want to end this war. The suffering has gone on for far too long. But I remain convinced, as I have argued in the past, that there is little point in negotiating with terrorists. Indeed, I remember very well how my friend Musa was later kidnapped and killed by militants in Swat 2009 — on the very same day that the TTP concluded a peace deal with the government.

The TTP has been emboldened by the success of their Afghan Taliban allies in seizing power in Kabul last year. The Afghan Taliban’s victory over the Americans didn’t just offer a morale boost; the new regime also opened up the prisons, freeing many Pakistani Taliban fighters who had been captured on Afghan soil by the country’s previous, pro-American rulers. They were happy to rejoin the struggle against Islamabad.

Meanwhile, the government of then-Prime Minister Imran Khan was eager to cut a peace deal. Khan hoped that striking an agreement with the militants would help to keep his increasingly unpopular government in power. In October he announced a new round of negotiations with the TTP. (Other governments since 2007 have tried to do the same thing at least six times before — without success.)

At the time of Khan’s announcement, I expressed my reservations, suggesting that Khan should try engaging with his political opposition rather than trying to find common ground with violent extremists. But he persisted, allowing his spy chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, to continue talks with the militants.

The negotiations took place in secret (in stark contrast to the talks between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, which played out in full view of the global media). When we demanded that the government inform the public of the details of the talks between Pakistani intelligence and the TTP, we never received any response. Imran Khan never took parliament into his confidence. In May, a few weeks after Khan’s ouster, the TTP suddenly exposed the secret negotiations by sending WhatsApp messages to some journalists.

But the new government hasn’t acted much differently. They pushed ahead with the talks, sending a delegation to Kabul.

In June, the military leadership finally briefed a national security committee about the negotiations, issuing reassuring statements that any agreement with the militants would be subject to parliamentary approval. (On July 5, the committee gave a green light to continue the talks.) The TTP has declared a unilateral cease fire.

All this might seem reassuring. But the reality is less inspiring: there is no peace in the areas bordering Afghanistan. Either the TTP does not have full control over all the militants in the region — or it is ignoring its own professions of peace. As recently as late June, one Pakistani soldier was dying every two days. On July 5, a suicide bomber in Waziristan wounded 10 soldiers, three seriously. And the government appears weak.

It seems unlikely that Islamabad will be able to satisfy the militants’ demands. What the extremists want ultimately is nothing less than the destruction of the Pakistani state, which they regard as fundamentally un-Islamic. It makes little sense to conduct talks with people who ultimately want your demise. Again and again, in recent years, the Taliban has shown that it regards peace agreements merely as a means for achieving the end of Pakistan’s democratic constitution.

The Taliban already refused to lay down its arms and disband the infrastructure of its militant organization. Can a nuclear state such as Pakistan allow the existence of a private army on its territory?

Unless the TTP is willing to surrender its weapons, it will push Pakistan into civil war. Tens of thousands of Pakistanis lost their lives during the insurgency. Did they make this sacrifice so that the rest of us could betray our country’s constitutional principles? Let’s hope not.

Hamid Mir is a contributing columnist for the Global Opinions section focused on Pakistani politics and geopolitical issues in the region.

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