After several months of intense fighting, the Pakistani government and the anti-Pakistan insurgent group the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are talking once again. In early June, the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, announced a cessation of hostilities with Pakistan for three months. This cease-fire resulted from weeks of secret talks in Kabul between the TTP and Pakistani military officials, followed by a more public meeting between the TTP and Pakistani tribal leaders — both mediated by the Afghan Taliban. For the first time, the Afghan Taliban also confirmed the talks and their role as mediators between Pakistan and the TTP.

A Pakistani soldier in South Waziristan, Pakistan, 2009. South Waziristan was part of Federally Administrated Tribal Areas that merged with mainland Pakistan in 2018. The TTP want this merger reversed. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
A Pakistani soldier in South Waziristan, Pakistan, 2009. South Waziristan was part of Federally Administrated Tribal Areas that merged with mainland Pakistan in 2018. The TTP want this merger reversed. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Discussions on next steps of the process between Pakistan and the TTP, including on release of more TTP prisoners, continue. Will the talks lead to an enduring political settlement between Pakistan and the TTP? Five factors will determine the trajectory of Pakistan-TTP negotiations.

1. TTP's Demands vs. Pakistan’s Interests

Since their onset, the talks remain shrouded in secrecy with Islamabad concealing both the aims of the negotiations as well as what it is willing to offer the TTP. Reports suggest that Pakistani military negotiators, led by Faiz Hamid, a former chief of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and current commander of the army’s Peshawar Corps, offered to accommodate the TTP with a safe passage back to Pakistan from Afghanistan in exchange for the TTP agreeing to a long-term cease-fire, dissolving its organization and joining mainstream politics.

This offer appears to be tempting but insufficient for the TTP, which is making two major demands. First, it wants a substantial reduction of Pakistani military forces from the country’s former tribal areas, known as the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). Second, it wants the 2018 merger of the tribal areas into mainland Pakistan through an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution — known as the FATA merger — reversed. While Pakistani negotiators indicate being open to a reduction of military forces in FATA, the merger reversal demand appears a bridge too far. For its part, the TTP insists that the FATA merger reversal is non-negotiable.

2. Who Will the Afghan Taliban Side With?

Given this deadlock, the Afghan Taliban’s mediation role takes center stage. Will the Taliban compel the TTP to settle for less or push Pakistan to concede to the TTP’s terms? There are three moving parts to the Taliban’s calculus.

First, the Taliban’s position is likely to be shaped by their own foreign relations and level of reliance on Pakistan — which is a function of the political and material support Taliban enjoyed from Pakistan during the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. One reason the Taliban appear to have pushed the TTP to negotiate in recent months is Pakistan’s mounting pressure amid Afghanistan’s deepening economic and humanitarian crisis. This pressure peaked with Pakistan’s airstrikes in eastern Afghanistan in the month of April. Pakistan may have also threatened more coercive pressure, including through restrictions on the Taliban leadership with homes and families in Pakistan as well as an economic squeeze on the Taliban’s revenues by restricting Afghanistan-Pakistan border trade. That seems to have shaken some Taliban leaders, like Pakistan’s long-standing ally Siraj Haqqani, the acting interior minister in Kabul, into action. They seem to believe that their regime is likely to remain isolated for the foreseeable future and more hostility with Pakistan will make their life more difficult, maybe even threaten the regime’s survival.

Yet this concern isn’t sufficient for the Taliban to completely reverse their alliance with the TTP. Haqqani continues to openly praise the TTP for its contribution in the insurgency against the United States and the former Afghan government, reiterating that the Taliban can’t abandon the TTP. Perhaps for this reason, the Taliban may be looking for strategic breathing room to offset their dependence on Pakistan. Among the recent moves the Taliban have made is reaching out to India, expending major political capital by reportedly assuring the Indian government it will take action against Pakistan-backed jihadist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed, as well as al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS). If India responds to the Taliban’s entreaties, this may open up new avenues of assistance for the Taliban, but it is unclear when.

If the Taliban’s level of reliance on Pakistan doesn’t change, two factors will be key to their medium-term position on the TTP. One is the Taliban’s internal politics. There is a reservoir of support for the TTP, both for its own contributions to the Taliban’s insurgency as well as for its anti-Pakistan politics. A faction of the Taliban which appears to have stepped up its support for the TTP and wants to shield it from Pakistan is the Kandahari Taliban leadership, including Taliban Defense Minister Mullah Yaqub. The extent to which this constituency will offset Haqqani’s preference for working with Pakistan is crucial.

Second, the Taliban’s position on the TTP’s demands will be important. While the Taliban generally back the TTP’s quest for a Shariah-based order in Pakistan, it is unclear where they stand on the TTP’s negotiating positions. It is plausible that the TTP’s demands (in particular, FATA merger reversal and reduction of Pakistani forces from FATA) are, in fact, the Taliban’s demands, as they could advance the Taliban’s interests. For example, they can create a buffer zone between Pakistan and the Taliban’s Afghanistan while elevating the political status of the TTP, which subordinates itself to the Taliban. Fulfillment of the TTP’s demands can also soften a critical chunk of the Durand Line and make it more consistent with the Afghan nationalist position on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

On the other hand, some in the Taliban — in particular, those concerned about ISIS-K as a threat to regime survival — may fear that if the TTP is unable to assert control of the territorial carve out it may get if Pakistan concedes in talks, anti-Taliban armed factions may take root and challenge the Taliban from across the border.

3. TTP Internal Politics

Even though much of the TTP has responded to the Taliban’s insistence on giving negotiations another chance, the TTP is torn on the political implications of talking to Pakistan. There appear to be three camps. The first camp, which is most influential, seems to calculate that the group’s campaign of violence following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has achieved a major political end at relatively low cost: Pakistan is close to making major concessions which will boost the political status of the TTP inside Pakistan while granting some territorial control and regional autonomy in the FATA. This faction also sees Pakistan’s release of TTP prisoners and offer of compensation as ultimately strengthening the group.

A second camp, however, seems to worry that no matter what the terms of the settlement are, Pakistan could renege and will retain the power to pull the rug from under their feet once they disarm. This camp remembers the history of deals with Pakistan military, which largely ended up in failures and culminated in major military campaigns. This camp is also unwilling to compromise on the ideological goal of a Shariah-based political order. Some leaders also resent the Taliban for asking them to talk to the Pakistani military and worry about the implications of reducing violence — and fear that Pakistan is likely to offer them less if they foreclose the option of violence.

A third camp, mainly dotted by families and extended tribal networks of refugees linked to TTP rank-and-file who moved to Afghanistan after Pakistan’s last major military operation called Zarb-e-Azb, seems to favor any settlement with Pakistani government that will ensure their swift and safe return to Pakistan from Afghanistan. Many in this camp have suffered from extreme poverty in eastern Afghanistan for several years — and the Taliban’s support remains insufficient for them. Amid Afghanistan’s growing humanitarian crisis, this camp’s access to food and other public goods has decreased.

4. Pakistan’s Domestic Politics

Pakistani politicians have been quiet on the military’s negotiations with the TTP — which is consistent with the longstanding outsourcing of the country’s Afghan policy to the military and intelligence services. Even retired military elites and military-aligned social media, who aggressively shape Pakistani national opinion on key national security and domestic political issues, have been relatively restrained on the talks. But there is unease below the surface. Even within the military there may be some divergence on how to proceed.

One source of tension is General Faiz Hamid’s role leading the current round of talks with the TTP. Due to his domestic political role as the chief of the ISI over the last few years and his previous activism being a source of tension between Army Chief Bajwa and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, he is a controversial figure. That he is leading the process as the Peshawar Corps commander is an added wrinkle. Previous attempts at deal-making led by the Peshawar Corps (like the infamous 2004 Shakai agreement) have ended in failure, with the ISI and the military working at cross-purposes. Hamid appears to have the full blessing of Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa on the talks but it is unclear the extent to which the current ISI chief Nadeem Anjum will get behind the terms Hamid could settle for.

There is also a question of how Pakistan’s parliamentary politics will shape the next phase of the talks, especially if the military asks for constitutional changes to support a settlement. Pakistani political elites generally fall in line with the military’s major priorities — and one report suggests that a Pakistani parliamentary delegation is likely to travel to Kabul to meet with TTP negotiators. For now, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the second major party in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s ruling coalition, is voicing concerns on the talks. This could be because the PPP is opposed to a settlement with the TTP, given its secular political credentials and the involvement of TTP operatives in the 2007 attack against PPP leader Benazir Bhutto. Additionally, the PPP championed the FATA merger in 2018, so it may be unwilling to concede on that to the TTP. A more cynical but plausible view is that the PPP’s opposition is due to some alignment between its top leader, Asif Zardari, and elements of the Pakistani military not on board with the talks.

Any moves to undo the constitutional merger of the former tribal areas will have a direct impact on parliamentary politics that determine the razor-sharp margins in Pakistan’s National Assembly and the ability to form governments.

5. Role of Transnational Terrorists

Transnational terrorist groups remain a wild card in the current scenario. Al-Qaida, which is focusing on its anti-India campaign, is likely to support a political pathway by which the TTP regains some territorial influence in the FATA, which gives al-Qaida core and AQIS more options for safety and operations.

On the other hand, ISIS-K will see this as an opportunity, hoping to not only poach from TTP’s fighters and commanders distrustful of the Pakistani state and the Taliban but also leverage reductions in Pakistani security forces’ presence in the former FATA region to assert territorial control of its own.

Implications for U.S. policy

There are versions of a TTP-Pakistan political settlement that may be acceptable for U.S. foreign policy interests. One such settlement can be demobilization of the TTP combined with the TTP guaranteeing it will not cooperate with transnational militants. A reconciliation process, which rebuilds trust between Pakistani state authorities, the insurgents and conflict-affected populations on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to realize a shared future will also be important. Such a settlement, by reducing the threat of violence, may alleviate concerns about nuclear-armed Pakistan’s fragility to anti-state armed actors and of safe havens emerging in semi-governed regions — at a low cost. This would be especially welcome as U.S. policy shifts away from counterterrorism and increasingly focuses on strategic competition with China. It can also advance the ongoing rightsizing of U.S. attention and resources to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The current expedient settlement under discussion is not the deal which will reduce threats. In fact, it could do the opposite. Far from demobilizing or embarking on a reconciliation process, the TTP wants to become a more formidable political actor with some type of regional autonomy in Pakistan through a settlement. Additionally, one takeaway for militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan from watching the lead up to Pakistan-TTP negotiations is that short, intense bursts of violence can enable major political gains. And if Pakistan agrees to the reversal of the FATA merger, it will go against a major thrust of U.S. counterterrorism strategy toward Pakistan to end semi-governed spaces and expand Pakistani state’s writ to all parts of the country. It will also worsen law order and local governance, which will be a major recruitment tool for militants in the region. The TTP is likely to be emboldened and other militant groups  — in particular al-Qaida and ISIS-K — are likely to find more space in the region from such a deal. And it is unlikely to stop with an initial settlement, as the political momentum will shift in favor of the TTP.

To be sure, nothing is set in stone yet. And Pakistani leadership may just look to sustain the cease-fire with the help of the Taliban without making costly concessions for as long as possible. But things can change as Pakistan is under pressure from the Taliban’s backing of the TTP on the one hand and deepening economic challenges on the other hand. American leverage with Pakistan is limited yet it is important U.S. policymakers dissuade Pakistan from making dangerous concessions to the TTP.

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