Imran Khan’s talks with Pakistan Taliban will not bring peace


By Ahsan I Butt

In an interview with Turkish media aired on October 1, Prime Minister, Imran Khan revealed that his government is in talks with Pakistan Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP). Following a period of relative dormancy, TTP has been significantly more active this year. Khan admitted that Islamabad is offering group a number of rewards from political amnesty to prisoner releases in return for laying down arms.

Such a deal does not serve Pakistan’s national interests and it will not work because TTP, like before is unlikely to abide by its terms. Aside from their implications for war and peace, prime minister’s comments were deeply uncomfortable for those who have not forgotten his role in bad old days of 2007-2014, when Taliban brought state to its knees.

‘Taliban Khan’: historical context

In politics, memories can be short. Today, it is worth remembering what role Khan played during peak of Taliban insurgency in Pakistan. If all he had done was maintain a rigorous silence during conflict, Pakistan would have been substantially better off.

Khan was avatar for a deeply sympathetic position towards Taliban. Not for nothing did he earn moniker “Taliban Khan”. By what in hindsight can only be termed an accident of history, national government between 2008 and 2013 was led by three parties all more or less ideologically opposed to TTP-Pakistan Peoples’ Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Awami National Party (ANP). Perhaps not coincidentally, all three today are shadows of their former selves.

From perspective of pursuing a war against violent extremists, this government make-up was relatively fortuitous. It meant that at political level at least, if not public writ large, country correctly identified Taliban as a deathly enemy, one that could only be defeated by force.

But Khan stymied any thrust towards aggressive action against Taliban. Rather than playing a constructive role and preparing public for a difficult and costly war, Khan did opposite: he railed against government and defended insurgent group.

His rhetoric was not without cost. Given his background as a popular cricketer and a well-known philanthropist, alongside his blunt and uncompromising rhetoric against ruling elite of Pakistan, Khan was perhaps most popular figure in Pakistan at time. He was also remarkably free of responsibility. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf had boycotted 2008 elections, which meant that it had no presence in parliament. Khan’s cosy relationship with military, meanwhile would only come five years later.

In a sense, then war was someone else’s problem. Khan had as much formal power as an internet troll – and often played part. The ratings-hungry media eagerly granted country’s most telegenic personality hours of coverage and his diatribes did not disappoint.

More than anyone else, he shaped contours of Taliban debate in Pakistan, which revolved around three questions. First, why was TTP attacking Pakistanis? Second, was state’s national interest served by negotiating or fighting TTP? Third, was US alliance a help or hindrance in defeating TTP? Only last of these was genuinely difficult to answer, but as it happened, each assumed a controversial and polarising colour.

While elected government and even military favoured a more assertive approach, realising mortal threat TTP posed to Pakistan, Khan hemmed and hawed. He made excuses for Taliban; they were only incensed by foreign occupation, he claimed and had no ideological agenda. The real problem, he thundered, was not the Taliban but government itself. He accused it and its predecessors of fighting “America’s war” and claimed military operations against group were only motivated by an avaricious thirst for dollars. In so doing, he ensured that espousing such a position was political poison, even if it was correct one.

All while, every week brought news of another Taliban attack. The TTP’s murder of Pakistanis was merciless and unrelenting. They bombed and shot them. They struck mosques and markets. They were daring enough to take on hard targets, such as army bases and airports and shameless enough to take on soft ones, such as schools and shrines. They killed important people as well as pitifully anonymous. They decapitated Pakistani police officers and soldiers and then uploaded videos of them to social media for world to see.

Over a decade, Taliban saw fit to end lives of more than 50,000 Pakistanis. Eventually, weight and sheer brutality of this sustained assault became too much to bear. By middle of 2010s, state began to conduct a series of security operations against group-no thanks to Khan, of course. Between a more aggressive military posture improved efficacy of US drones and “fortunate” happenstance of an internationalised civil war in Syria, which pulled centre of gravity for jihadists to west Asia, away from central and south Asia, Pakistan managed to turn the tide on Taliban terrorism.

The Taliban resurgence

But group was never completely vanquished. Now, with wind of Afghan Taliban’s victory in its sails, a success that Islamabad ironically played an important role in, TTP is back in spades. To deal with its violence, Khan once again favours a soft hand, in this regard, little seems to have changed. The difference, of course, is that this time he is in power.

At one level, Taliban’s resurgence is a thorough repudiation of Khan’s theory of terrorism in Pakistan. Khan claimed that Taliban were motivated by presence of US forces in Afghanistan and by US-Pakistan alliance, not by ideology. But the US departed Afghanistan earlier this year. As for the erstwhile partnership with Washington, Khan-still waiting for a phone call from President Joe Biden will be more aware than most that it lies in tatters.

And yet Taliban violence continues unabated, group responsible for almost a 100 terrorist attacks in 2021 alone, a figure prime minister shockingly dismissed as a mere “spate”. Even taken on its own terms-and let us not mince words, he was and continues to be nonsensical on topic of terrorism-Khan’s theory has been falsified.

The false promise of peace deals

More important than I-told-you-so’s, however, is fact that plan of action Khan is discussing will not work. Indeed, it never has: Pakistan has previously negotiated at least a half dozen “peace deals” with TTP. Every single one failed.

The Taliban are a maximalist organisation that, unlike many other insurgent groups, are not satisfied with a slice-they must have the whole loaf. Some secessionist movements, for instance, happily take deals for autonomy, as opposed to their stated goal of independence. Negotiated accords can successfully pacify some insurgencies, just not this one.

The TTP’s desire is to overthrow, violently or otherwise, Pakistani state and impose their interpretation of Sharia throughout country. There is no offering short of this, no concession or act of generosity, that Islamabad will be able to buy TTP forbearance with.

In fact, all a peace deal will do-all it has ever done, when it comes to TTP is allow it to regroup, reorganise, rearm and bolster its capacity for death and destruction. And this is before one even considers that most important groups that make up TTP do not favour and are not involved in, ongoing talks. If government manages to coax an assurance from TTP for the cessation of violence, it will be a laughably worthless promise.

Pakistani PTSD

In truth, visceral reaction from Pakistani public to news of talks is only partly rooted in prognostications about their failure. There is an emotional angle too, a therapist would describe it as unresolved trauma.

It is almost galling, nigh-on offensive, for Khan to announce these talks and assurances of forgiveness for Taliban without any participation from parliament or discussion with public. Given his personal history on question, it justifiably rubs many wrong way.

After all, Khan was not just bystander that failed to help put out fire. Rather, he dissuaded firefighters from entering building and, while fire continued to rage, preached for understanding for arsonist. Now, years later, he informs building’s surviving residents that, without their input, arsonist is being allowed to sign a new lease-after all, fire was no big deal in first place.

Khan being so blasé about Taliban’s record exacerbates collective post-traumatic stress disorder Pakistanis suffer from. His being so credulous about Taliban’s intentions worsens security threats those same Pakistanis face. In coming to power in 2018, Khan was fortunate to sidestep worst of war, fought and won during tenure of his two hated rivals, PPP and PML-N. For his own sake if no one else’s, he should tread carefully.

–Courtesy: Al Jazeera