ISLAMABAD — Intermediaries representing Pakistan’s government and Taliban insurgents will meet later this week, supposedly to explore avenues for a peaceful solution to the country’s six-year militant uprising.
But their conversations aren’t expected to yield much, except political posturing that aims to unite public opinion against the Taliban. That’s because the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, already has decided to press ahead with a massive military strike at the militants’ headquarters in North Waziristan, a tribal area bordering Afghanistan – and the insurgents know it’s coming.
Initial talks scheduled for Tuesday already had failed when the government canceled them after two of the five proposed Taliban representatives withdrew – Imran Khan, the cricket player turned politician who declined the Taliban invitation to represent them, and Mufti Kafayatullah, because his Jamiat Ulemai-Islam religious party in January joined the government coalition.
The pessimism surrounding the talks with the Pakistani Taliban, who are usually referred to as the TTP, the acronym for their Urdu-language name, is being driven by Sharif’s change of heart after a wave of terrorist attacks in December and January that were remarkable for their focus on security personnel and their spread into many of Pakistan’s major cities. Instead of negotiations, Sharif, after conferring with his party and the military, has concluded that his government needs to strike back, and he has ordered the army to mobilize.
The TTP’s attacks cost several hundred lives – one local media estimate counted 436 deaths – and demonstrated that the Pakistani Taliban had retaken territory lost to the military before Sharif became prime minister in June.
After being sworn in, Sharif insisted that the option of peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban be explored, despite opposition from the country’s powerful military, which had all but routed the militants after five years of fighting involving 150,000 troops.
The TTP used the eight months since to regroup, organize and publicly demonstrate their renewed strength with the two-month wave of terrorist attacks. That response to Sharif’s reconciliatory policy has made him look ill-informed and naive, and much of the public anger generated by the terrorist attacks has targeted him.
Analysts now believe Sharif has forsaken the idea of compromise; either the TTP recognizes the sovereignty of Pakistan’s constitution and accepts the country’s laws, or the country’s military will be unleashed to defeat it.
The TTP has other ideas altogether, according to a list of demands leaked to the Pakistani media, which includes the withdrawal of security forces from South and North Waziristan, release of imprisoned militant leaders, and the nationwide imposition of its skewed interpretation of Islamic law.
Sharif’s decision has been conveyed to Pakistan’s key international partners, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, either by the prime minister or by his adviser on national security and foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, over the last two weeks.
The Saudis have accepted Sharif’s request that the imam of the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, located in Mecca, travel to Pakistan to pronounce a new Islamic narrative that completely rejects violent extremism on religious pretexts, thereby exposing the TTP’s religious credentials as fraudulent.
The Turks will bring in their experience of dealing with the Kurdish insurgency to train a new civilian-led counterterrorism force, currently being recruited exclusively from retired soldiers with recent experience of fighting the TTP.
While those agreements have been made public, the government has not been as forthcoming about breakthroughs in relations with the United States, including those made at a weeklong foreign minister-level strategic dialogue meeting in Washington that concluded on Monday.
There, Aziz laid out a new policy under which Pakistan would act to secure the northwest tribal areas by the time the United States withdraws the last of its combat troops from Afghanistan in December. That entails a decisive operation in North Waziristan, with Pakistan seeking the support of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force on the Afghan side of the border to cut off TTP escape routes.
That level of security cooperation, not seen since a 2011 plunge in diplomatic relations, has been key to previous Pakistani counterterrorism successes, notably in January 2009, when Pakistan successfully assaulted the Bajaur tribal area and wiped out the TTP’s second-largest faction. Then, U.S. forces on the Afghan side of the border prevented their flight from a massive Pakistani campaign of aerial bombing.
Bajaur was the first tribal area to be retaken after more than 30 militant factions united under the TTP banner in 2007, seized all seven tribal areas, and extended their territory beyond them into Swat and other settled regions of northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
To establish his credentials as a national leader fighting a war for Pakistan’s future, Sharif has repeatedly asked the Obama administration to end CIA drone strikes against militant targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. They have ceased since December.
The military’s state of heightened readiness has been publicly visible in the largely peaceable eastern Punjab province since late January.
Armed troops in full combat gear have replaced police at entry points of military-administered areas of cities, called cantonments, including in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s twin city, where the army is headquartered.
Senior military officers based in Lahore, the provincial capital, now travel with an entourage of half a dozen or more armed escort vehicles with wailing sirens.
Military traffic along the 150-mile-long Grand Trunk Road, which links Rawalpindi to Lahore, has increased, particularly near Kharian, the headquarters of the Pakistan army’s eastern command, and Jhelum, where soldiers have been conducting “war-preparedness” exercises. Trucks carrying troops there are protected by security escort vehicles, as well as by a manned and loaded roof-mounted heavy machinegun, with the barrel pointing at forthcoming traffic.
Speaking privately, because they aren’t authorized to talk to journalists, younger military officers based elsewhere in the country, who have spent most of their careers fighting the TTP in the tribal areas, said they’ve been told by their commanders to expect reassignment to the units being called up for the forthcoming operation in North Waziristan.
The Taliban know the assault is coming, and it has advised residents of North Waziristan to leave, prompting a steady stream of refugees into adjacent towns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Many people already had left after clashes between the militants and the military, following the assassination in September of Gen. Sanaullah Niazi, a senior army officer. Attacks on the military have twice led to aerial retaliation on populated areas where the militants live, with little or no regard for collateral civilian casualties.
The government counterattack is expected to be launched by March, officials and analysts say.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.