The Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP)’s assassination of Pakistani army Major General Sanaullah Niazi highlights the difficulty of the task Islamabad set itself when all major Pakistani political parties agreed last week that peace talks with the militant group should be pursued. Niazi’s killing comes on the heels of TTP demands over the weekend for the release of militant prisoners and withdrawal of troops from the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan as confidence-building measures before the peace talks.
The Pakistani army is likely to be distinctly unimpressed by this approach to negotiating and without the army’s approval, any political initiative is toothless. There is, in fact, a fundamental dissonance between the army’s strategic vision and the TTP’s goals that undercuts the very idea of a dialogue at the present point in time.
The TTP may swear allegiance to Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, but it is situated firmly in a Pakistani context; in practical terms, it has little in common with its counterpart across the border.
When the Pakistani army went into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to support US military action across the border in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan, it triggered a backlash by tribal groups native to the region that viewed the incursions as attacks on their autonomy.
Thus, the coming together of these rebel groups to form the TTP in 2007 is rooted in their fight against the Pakistani state their continuing raison d’etre, for all that they also pay lip service to the idea of fighting international forces in Afghanistan. This is in stark contrast to the Afghan Taliban that depends heavily on the Pakistani army and has attempted unsuccessfully on occasion to get the TTP to switch targets.
The upshot is that Rawalpindi draws a sharp distinction between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP. It may see the former as a strategic asset in the struggle for control over Afghanistan, but the latter is a rival within Pakistan that it has little reason to countenance.
The TTP’s growing links with al-Qaeda do not help matters. There is no profit for the Pakistani state in either the increased international visibility that link brings or the prospect of increased terrorist activity within the country’s borders, adding to the past six years’ death toll of some 40,000 people.
Given these factors, it is more likely than not that the proposed peace talks will not reach fruition. The more plausible scenario is that the Pakistani army will attempt to splinter the TTP via military pressure and selective engagement, a tactic that the coalition of various groups may be vulnerable too.
The latter has already taken against Asmatullah Muawiya, leader of sister organisation and one of its main avenues of exerting influence outside Pashtun areas, the Punjabi Taliban, for welcoming the offer of peace talks.
With 2014 and the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan approaching, the stakes are rising and Rawalpindi is unlikely to bet on Islamabad’s good intentions.