Pakistan sent a secret delegation to neighboring Afghanistan to hold talks with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as part of efforts to revive peace efforts with the militant group, sources told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.
The TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has intensified its attacks in Pakistan since a monthlong cease-fire expired and peace talks collapsed in December.
The Pakistani delegation held several days of talks with TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud and members of the extremist group’s leadership council in Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Paktika, said sources with knowledge of the discussions.
The delegation -- which arrived in Paktika’s Bermal district on January 9 -- consisted of influential Pashtun tribal elders from Pakistan, the sources said. Many members of the TTP are Pashtuns from the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which straddles the border with Afghanistan.
A massive Pakistani Army offensive in 2014 drove out TTP militants from Pakistan's tribal belt and across the border to Afghanistan.
“The elders stayed there for two nights and held three or four rounds of discussions,” said a source close to the delegation. “The TTP leadership welcomed the delegation with traditional Pashtun hospitality and slaughtered two sheep.”
The source added that the talks centered on reviving the expired truce and resuming talks over a negotiated end to the TTP’s 14-year insurgency in Pakistan, where thousands of people have been killed in militant attacks and clashes between the TTP and the military.
The talks between the Pakistani delegation and the TTP were mediated by the Afghan Taliban, which has close ideological and organizational ties with the TTP. The Afghan militant group is also a longtime ally of Islamabad, its main foreign sponsor.
The Pakistani delegation also visited the Afghan capital, Kabul, where they met senior members of the Haqqani network, a key Afghan Taliban faction, said a source with knowledge of the delegation's visit. The network is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.
The Taliban’s Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani network, has been the key facilitator for the talks between Islamabad and the TTP. But the delegation did not meet with Haqqani, the source said, adding that the reason was unclear.
In November, the Afghan Taliban mediated a monthlong cease-fire between Pakistan and the TTP. The truce was agreed after weeks of secret talks in Afghanistan between Pakistani military officials and representatives of the TTP.
But the cease-fire ended on December 9 after peace negotiations broke down over terms, triggering a new wave of TTP attacks in Pakistan.
The TTP demanded the release of some 100 fighters in Pakistani prisons, while Islamabad only released a dozen. In return, the government demanded a nationwide truce. The TTP also demanded the implementation of Islamic Shar’ia law in Pakistan’s tribal belt, a demand that observers said the government would likely reject.
“The delegation proposed an offer [on behalf of the government] to release half of the 100 TTP prisoners,” said a member of the delegation who did not want to be named. “But the TTP leadership did not agree.”
A source close to the delegation said TTP leaders complained that Islamabad had repeatedly backtracked on a “promise” to release all the prisoners.
The delegation returned to Pakistan on January 11. They were expected to brief Pakistan military officials upon their return, the sources said.
A Pakistani government official, speaking to Radio Mashaal on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, confirmed that Pakistan’s powerful military had sent a secret delegation to meet with TTP leaders in Afghanistan. The Inter-Services Public Relations, the military's media wing, did not respond to an email from Radio Mashaal seeking comment.
Pakistan’s attempts to revive peace talks comes as the TTP intensifies its attacks in northwestern Pakistan, its former stronghold.
Riven internally, debilitated by the death of successive leaders, and forced from its strongholds, the TTP was seen for years as a largely spent force. But the group has reemerged over the past two years, unifying squabbling factions and unleashing a wave of deadly attacks.
The TTP claimed 45 attacks in December, the highest of any month last year.
Pakistan recorded at least 294 militant attacks in 2021, a 56 percent increase compared to the previous year, according to the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. Most of the attacks were attributed to the TTP.
Pakistan has not witnessed a respite in TTP attacks since the new year. On January 18, the TTP claimed responsibility for a deadly gun assault on a police checkpoint in the capital, Islamabad, as the country’s interior minister warned of the potential for further attacks in the capital. The attack killed an officer and both assailants, police said.
On January 14, a Pakistani soldier was killed in northwestern Pakistan in an attack claimed by the TTP.
Observers said the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan in August has further galvanized and strengthened the TTP.
The Afghan Taliban has been unwilling to bow to Islamabad’s demand that it expel the TTP or prevent it from using Afghan territory from carrying out attacks in Pakistan.
The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in August has also significantly reduced U.S. air strikes in the region, allowing the TTP to operate more freely, experts said.
TTP fighters have also obtained sophisticated weaponry, including U.S.-made firearms, which their Afghan allies seized from Afghanistan's defeated armed forces.