The Pakistani government’s peace negotiations with Taliban-linked militants has faced hesitation from U.S., British, and NATO officials, who fear a ceasefire will only allow these forces to regroup and increase attacks on foreign troops located across the border in Afghanistan. This sentiment was further exacerbated when Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud told reporters Saturday that their jihad would continue against these forces in Afghanistan, despite Pakistani authorities signing a 15-point peace deal with these militants in the Swat Valley last week, [see previous post]. Given the reported contention surrounding these developments, CHUP thought it important to talk with Farhana Ali, a Policy Analyst at RAND Corporation who has done extensive research on jihadist networks and religious extremism, and could therefore shed light on the recent string of events.
Q: News coverage of the negotiations between the government and Islamist militants has reported a “back-and-forth” in the process – from militants pulling out of the talks because authorities refused to pull troops out of the tribal areas to news sources recently reporting that a truce was signed with militants in Swat. Do you think such a peace agreement will last? What factors must be in place to ensure its success and differentiate it from past agreements?
Agreements like these have been “on and off” in the tribal areas/FATA and NWFP, but this is the first time an agreement was reached with tribals in the settled areas, a new trend. I think the agreement can hold if the government withdraws troops, and tribals stick to their word of mitigating violence and attacks against the army and/or government (i.e., hard targets). The ultimate point I make is that these agreements have always favored the tribal lords and their Taliban backers, who receive much more than the points enumerated in the press. Tribals always come out ahead in the negotiation process – they are allowed to assert their independence, their way of life / cultural norms, and most of all, uphold a rule of law that is amenable to their tribal/traditional structures, hence, weakening the government’s influence or ability to influence this area.
Q: What do you think about the part in the 15-point deal in which the government agreed to establish Sharia law in Swat Valley?
The 15 points that the government and tribals agreed to is in the favor of the tribal lords and ultimately, the Taliban. Through this deal, they are able to maintain their Sharia court and assert their own law and order. This is not startling after all there always had been Sharia court system, but never in Swat, a settled area. It is understandable in FATA, but to allow tribals affiliated or sympathetic to the Talibs impose their own legislation grants them enormous autonomy, which means this settled area and others like it will never fall under the government’s jurisdiction.
Q: The media has consistently framed the negotiations as “the authorities” who are talking with “Taliban-linked militants” or “Islamic militants.” Who are these militants and what networks do they encompass? More importantly, how centralized is their authority?
The authorities are representatives of the Pakistani Government and most likely defense/security officials. The militants are a kaleidoscope of groups/networks; they are not all hard-core militants nor all non-violent individuals. What is clear is that the militants all agree to a system of governance that falls outside the state’s purview and Constitution. The militants abide by a structure, law, culture, and even religious dogma that differs from Pakistanis not living in the tribal areas, which separates them from the average Pakistani. Bear in mind that there is and always has been three kinds of Taliban: Afghani, Pakistani, and Punjabi. They all converge on certain issues but also widely differ. And their leadership varies, ranging from local emirs in charge of given territories (i.e., villages), though there is a loose pyramidal structure (top-bottom approach) that can been seen in the form of a Jihad Counsel (for Kashmiri-based groups) and Shura Council (for Afghan/Pak-based Taliban groups).
Q: Can you shed light on the role of the Frontier Corps versus the Pakistani military? How are they recruited and have they been effective so far? Can their backgrounds be used to fight this battle and uphold a potential peace agreement more effectively?
Briefly, FC requires additional training, equipment, and most of all, motivation. They lack the latter, given their ethnic ties and loyalties to the people of the tribal region. Their effectiveness has waned in recent months, and can be witnessed through defections.
Meaningful peace in this region requires more than military might; there needs to be a political and economic solution that coincides with the use of force, which at this point is likely to be minimal, if at all, should the negotiations last. A political solution will empower the local people, grant them the ability to define and choose their leaders rather than live in a climate of fear and coercion. The Pakistani Army certainly has a role to play in the tribal region, though it is not clear at this point how and what kinds of operations will be sanctioned, in the new climate and under the new civilian leadership.
Another point worth mentioning is Washington’s hesitation, or rather, disappointment with Pakistan’s negotiations with tribals linked to the Taliban. There is great concern even from NATO that these alliances only allow militants to rearm, regroup, and recharge their networks, which over time, strengthens them.
Q: A recent Newsweek article noted that as the negotiation process has been occurring, “some U.S. counterterrorism officials fear their “worst nightmare” is unfolding: a scenario in which Al Qaeda leaders in the area will have more freedom than ever to recruit and train new members.” However, the administration is unsure how to approach the situation, especially given the anti-American sentiment in the region. Do you have any suggestions? What do you think of this U.S. fear – is it founded?
These fears are based on historical precedence; previous agreements- albeit a failure – enabled militants to maintain their sanctuary, secure their base of operations, and continue logistic activities. The current government’s willingness and desire to negotiate with the Taliban is a policy that the state deems necessary to quell previous levels of violence and attacks against the state. The concern some have is that negotiations with terrorists rewards their activities and sends the message that they are legitimate non-state actors. But, after eight years of military operations against the tribals/Taliban, Islamabad may feel that there is no other alternative but to negotiate on terms that are mutually acceptable to both parties.
What is not clear is if and how these negotiations will deter al-Qaeda and other groups from exploiting Pakistan’s culture of sanctuary.
A point of contention of course is who to negotiate with and what the terms of negotiation should be. As indicated earlier, I think the bargaining power rests with the Taliban and their cohorts (ie, tribal leaders sympathetic to the group). The government’s recent release of Taliban, including senior members, in exchange for Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan is one example of the militants’ bargaining power; the state denies this in press reports but there are other sources that confirm the exchange.
For more of CHUP’s past interviews, click here.