Millennium Post

Dangerous portends

India should continue engaging with the Taliban regime to make sure that the negative fallouts of TTP-Pak peace deal are averted

Dangerous portends

The Pakistan government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) recently agreed to extend their ceasefire indefinitely and continue negotiations to end militancy in the tribal border region. The ceasefire was first declared till May 31 and extended indefinitely within two weeks thereafter. The last extension followed two days of talks with a delegation of prominent Pakistani tribal leaders, which was hosted by the Afghan Taliban. A 57-member delegation that took part in the parleys also comprised some Pakistani politicians and top officials like former ISI chief and current Peshawar Corps Commander Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, Federal Minister Sajid Hussain Turi, former Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa governor Shaukatullah Khan and Senator Dost Mohammad Mehsud. Local reports quoted Mohammad Khurasani, a spokesperson for the banned TTP, as saying that the decision to indefinitely extend the ceasefire was made in June after "substantial progress" in the negotiations. This "progress", if any, has again put focus on the demands raised by the banned TTP during the negotiations. The TTP has set a major condition of reversal of the merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) to cut any peace deal with Pakistan. It has also sought removal of all armed forces personnel from the border region and substituting them with the paramilitary Frontier Corps. Among the demands are enforcement of Shariah law in tribal areas; release and pardon of its commanders and fighters; and complete freedom of movement for the TTP members. The TTP has also opposed the constitutional, secular and urban norms concerning education, taxation and law and order. The continuance of talks over these demands, which are difficult for Islamabad to concede, would clearly buy time for the TTP to remobilise and stack up resources, especially along the borders with Afghanistan.

Besides the people of Afghanistan, the biggest loser in the resurgence of the Taliban is Pakistan. A report of the United Nations Security Council highlights Pakistan's dilemma as it tries to fight insurgency on its own soil after having supported Taliban's war across the border in Afghanistan for over two decades. The growing militant threat inside Pakistan now emerges largely from Afghanistan where the Taliban are harbouring al Qaeda affiliates and Islamic State (Khorasan). The report says the TTP has based a large number of armed fighters in the Afghan-Pak border region and consolidated itself by reabsorbing 17-odd former affiliate outfits. "The group is focused on a long-term campaign against the Pakistani state, suggesting that ceasefire deals have a limited chance of success," the report said, referring to apparent attempts at mediation by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a Taliban cabinet minister who is also a sanctioned terrorist. Pakistani political circles, strategic experts and the media have started waving the red flag regarding these negotiations with the TTP. They are asking questions as to why should the government forgive or be soft towards the outfit which is responsible for the death and maiming of thousands of Pakistani citizens. They are demanding that the negotiations need to be handled with care and should ensure that any peace deal respects the Pakistani Constitution and the democratic process.

In a recent editorial, prominent Pakistani daily 'Dawn' said: "Militant groups should not be allowed to dictate to the state where security forces can and cannot go. Moreover, the merger of FATA and KP in 2018 came about as part of a constitutional process and cannot be undone to accommodate the TTP's whims. As for the enforcement of Sharia in the region, a similar experiment was tried in 2009, and fell through very soon, with the military having to move in to quell a rebellion instigated by the terrorists." Media reports have indicated that the Pakistan government has released some prominent TTP figures from its prisons to show its seriousness about pursuing the negotiations with the terror outfit. There has also been some forward movement on another TTP demand — that of monetary compensation to the families of Talibani militants killed or injured in Pakistani attacks on them, these reports have indicated.

At the same time, signs of the Taliban's collusion with major jihadi groups have also emerged. A meeting on the Afghan situation was held a few weeks ago in Tajikistan's capital of Dushanbe, which was attended by security officials of South and Central Asian nations. The attendees, who included officials from India, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and host Tajikistan, expressed grave concern over Taliban enabling terrorism in their backyard. While promising humanitarian aid, the officials demanded that Taliban should include women and represent ethnic and religious diversity in an "inclusive" government in Afghanistan. Iran's Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Shamkhani, called for a joint regional counterterrorism focus while noting that there was "alarming evidence of the presence and involvement of some regional and extra-regional countries in the transfer of terrorists to Afghanistan." Qatar too sounded the alarm over the Islamists' propensity for extremism and jihad and sought urgent engagement to minimize this threat. Pointing towards the threats posed by the Taliban, strategic experts have opined that the TTP and al Qaeda have long changed their strategy from one of "direct confrontation" with their perceived enemies to enabling proxies like the Kashmiri jihadist groups in India, Ansarullah outfit in Tajikistan and the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan to recruit and wage jihad against the countries.

TTP, which was considerably weakened due to its infighting, defections, and operations against it since 2014, has started regrouping after the leadership fell into the hands of Noor Wali Mehsud, who took over following the death of Mullah Fazlullah in a US drone strike in June 2018. It was Fazlullah's men who had shot the schoolgirl, Malala Yousufzai, in Pakistan in 2012. TTP, under his leadership, was also behind the 2014 massacre in a Peshawar school that claimed the lives of more than 130 children. Mehsud, the current head of TTP who took over as its 4th chief, appears to have consolidated the outfit since then. In the past few years, Mehsud has started re-absorbing several splinter groups, while intensifying terror campaigns inside Pakistani territory, prompting military retaliation. For instance, the outfits like the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and factions of Harkat-ul-Ansar, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and al Qaeda were merged with the TTP. It also attempted to co-opt or support Pashtun and Balochi outfits to grow its support base, even though these ethnic groups are still not motivated by jihadi and extremist ideology. As per the UN estimates, the TTP has a strength of up to 6,000, all holed up in the provinces along the Pak-Afghan border.

As past experience shows, the problem of negotiating with terrorist or extremist groups is that they seldom stick to their word and return to violence under the slightest pretext. Moreover, even if a terrorist outfit's leaders commit to peace, there is no guarantee that the others within the organisation would also honour their pledges. There are several instances of splinter groups branching out to carry on violent methods. Pakistan has had a skewed approach to terrorism. It would promise launching operations against the terror groups to win international support, funding and diplomatic backing, but at the same time, provide a safety net to the terrorists and harbour these outfits. Therefore, the jihadi infrastructure could be sustained and used against adversaries like India to pursue larger strategic goals. This approach has also resulted in Pakistan failing to come out of the Grey List of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) despite several attempts. In the current context, it is highly possible that a resurgent TTP could soon again pose a major threat to Pakistan and, in turn, create trouble in Kashmir. Further, unless Pakistan stops sheltering terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the challenge of terrorism cannot be resolved within Pakistan or in neighbouring countries like India.

It is in this backdrop that India has renewed its contacts with the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan, through offering aid in an hour of humanitarian crisis. New Delhi has allocated roughly USD 27 million in Indian Rupees to Afghanistan in the latest budget for the financial year 2022-23. According to the budgetary sanction, the amount will be disbursed to pay for existing Indian projects in the country, scholarships for Afghan students and aid for the Afghan people. Even though this allocation is significantly less than the USD 47 million granted to the erstwhile Ashraf Ghani government in 2021-22, the continuance of the aid reflects a shift in India's stand on Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Over the past two decades, India has invested a total of over USD three billion in that country, including on the construction of the Afghan Parliament building, on education and health infrastructure, a major hydropower dam and the 218-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram highway in southwestern Afghanistan. New Delhi should now start clearly engaging with the Taliban regime in Kabul and leverage this relationship to check the Taliban in Pakistan from carrying out dangerous activities in the sub-continent, especially in Kashmir.

Views expressed are personal

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