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'Rubbing Salt Into Our Wounds': In Pakistan, Opposition Grows To Impending Deal With Tehrik-e Taliban

TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud (left) with another movement leader at an undisclosed location.

Lawyer Fazal Khan says he feels furious following Pakistan's ongoing peace negotiations with the hard-line militant group Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

His eldest son, eighth-grader Sahibzada Omar Khan, was killed in the TTP's most horrific attack.

On December 16, 2014, a group of TTP militants stormed the Army Public School in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. They massacred Sahibzada and 131 other students. Fifteen teachers and staff were also killed in the attack, remembered as the worst terrorist atrocity in Pakistan's 74-year history.

“This is like rubbing salt into our wounds,” he told RFE/RL. “This is like laughing at the sacrifices and martyrdom of innocent victims [of terrorist] attacks.”

Khan is not alone in questioning the mostly opaque talks, which senior Pakistani officials say are aimed at ending the TTP’s 14-year insurgency. A deal between Islamabad and the TTP now appears to be in sight after the group declared an indefinite cease-fire this month following months of parleys brokered by the Afghan Taliban.

Imminent Deal

Reports in the Pakistani media indicate that Islamabad has already agreed to release hundreds of detained and convicted TTP members and withdraw court cases against them.

Additionally, a large portion of the tens of thousands of Pakistani troops stationed in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) -- where the TTP first emerged as an umbrella organization of small Taliban factions in 2007 -- will be withdrawn. Islamabad has also agreed to implement Islamic Shari'a law in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Malakand region. The two sides have yet to agree on retracting democratic reforms and the merger of FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and whether thousands of TTP militants can return with their arms and keep their organization intact.

Pakistani officials recently issued these posters to journalists to create public awareness regarding TTP-Pakistan talks.
Pakistani officials recently issued these posters to journalists to create public awareness regarding TTP-Pakistan talks.

But opposition to the imminent agreement is growing as victims of TTP violence question its logic. Others see it linked to the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, which Islamabad helped by hosting the insurgency for nearly two decades. Pakistan's several failed agreements with the TTP motivates some to warn of its potential negative fallout.

Yet senior officials are adamant that the TTP’s ongoing talks with a tribal council handpicked by the government will result in an agreement acceptable to both sides. Pakistani Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb says the civilian administration and military support the talks.

“Whatever decision the negotiating committee will make will be eventually made with the approval of the government and the parliament,” she told journalists on June 4.

Many politicians, however, do not share her optimism.

"After imposing the Taliban on Afghanistan, the Pakistani security state wants to hand over the former tribal areas to force Pashtuns to live under neocolonial conditions,” former Senator Afrasiab Khattak told RFE/RL, referring to Pakistan’s alleged support for the Afghan Taliban, which allowed it to endure the U.S.-led war on terrorism and return to power last August, a little more than a year after it signed a peace deal with Washington.

Khattak sees Islamabad’s support for the Islamist Taliban as part of its strategy to shape Afghanistan’s politics and control the once-porous Pashtun borderlands straddling the two neighbors. The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic minority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has a population of some 40 million people.

Khattak survived a Taliban suicide bombing in 2008. Later that year and the next, he negotiated with the Pakistani Taliban -- sometimes with their suicide bombers present in the room -- as a senior adviser to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government.

But the TTP did not adhere to agreements made in 2008 and 2009, which paved the way for one of the most extensive military operations against the group in Swat Valley, one of the seven districts in Malakand. Rah-e Rast, as the military operation was formally known, displaced more than 3 million civilians.

Overall, more than 70,000 civilians and soldiers were killed and some 6 million displaced in Pakistan’s domestic war on terrorism that climaxed with operation Zarb-e Azb in the North Waziristan tribal district in 2014.

“Pashtuns are worried about a new terrorist onslaught leading to a second so-called war on terror leading to more killings and destruction,” Khattak said.

Other Taliban Factions

Zarb-e Azb drove the TTP into Afghanistan, where the group eventually regrouped by reintegrating splinter factions.

After the Taliban seized power in August, the TTP launched a new offensive, mainly targeting Pakistani troops in the tribal areas. Islamabad attempted to respond to the violence by targeting TTP hideouts inside Afghanistan. A recent UN report said some 4,000 of its members might be sheltering there.

People walk through a security barrier as Pakistani and Taliban flags fly at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman.
People walk through a security barrier as Pakistani and Taliban flags fly at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman.

Islamabad also won respite from TTP attacks as Pakistani officials pushed to reconcile the group through talks, which resulted in a monthlong cease-fire in November last year.

"They will only gain strength and will be able to run their militant campaign more effectively," Mohsin Dawar, a young lawmaker who represents North Waziristan in the Pakistani parliament, said of the possible fallout from a peace deal.

Dawar told RFE/RL that an agreement with the TTP is unlikely to end all Taliban violence in Pakistan. A rival faction headed by Hafiz Gul Bahadur in North Waziristan has reportedly stepped up its attacks against Pakistani troops in the area. The Pakistani military claims to have killed several rebels in North Waziristan this month following attacks on security forces during the previous weeks.

"If the TTP foot soldiers won't benefit from the impending deal, they are likely to switch over to Bahadur's group or move on to join Daesh," he said, referring to Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) by its Arabic acronym. "These talks will have far-reaching and very dangerous results because violence will continue."

Pakistani troops watch from a hilltop post near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan in the Khyber district.
Pakistani troops watch from a hilltop post near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan in the Khyber district.

In 2015, IS-K emerged from within the TTP, whose leaders and foot soldiers had forged close ties with Arab and Central Asian Islamist militants. But most of the group's members have largely been loyal to the Afghan Taliban due to ideological, personal, and organizational ties.

Khan, now living in exile in Europe after surviving an assassination attempt in July 2020, is adamant about campaigning against what he says is the military's shadowy dealing with the militants.

After years leading Army Public School parents in a campaign for justice for their slain children, he joined the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a civil rights campaign, in 2018.

Over the years he has lodged several high-profile cases against powerful military and civilian officials for failing to provide security for people from terrorist violence.

“If the government goes ahead with this agreement, we will hasten our resistance," he said.