Pakistan is holding secret talks with the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) extremist group over a cease-fire, sources have told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.
That is despite the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, publicly denying a claim by Islamabad last month that the sides were in negotiations.
Pakistani military officials and representatives of the TTP have been meeting in neighboring Afghanistan to negotiate a truce, said sources with knowledge of the TTP’s policies.
The talks have been mediated by the Taliban’s Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the notorious Haqqani network, the lethal arm of the Taliban, the sources added. The network is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization and Haqqani is among the FBI's most-wanted fugitives.
The Afghan militants, who seized power of the war-torn country in August, have links with both Islamabad and the TTP.
A cease-fire agreement could pave the way for formal 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.
“They have been engaged in talks for two weeks,” said a source familiar with the negotiations, describing the talks as “hectic.”
Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul, Mansour Ahmad Khan, told RFE/RL on November 2 that he did not know of any talks. But he did not reject the possibility of talks with the TTP.
The negotiations come as the TTP has intensified its attacks in recent months in northwestern Pakistan, its former stronghold. A massive Pakistani Army offensive in 2014 drove out the militants from the country’s tribal belt and across the border to Afghanistan.
Forced from its strongholds, debilitated by the death of successive leaders, and riven internally, the TTP was seen as a largely spent force. But the militant group has reemerged over the past year, unifying squabbling factions and unleashing a spate of deadly attacks in Pakistan.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said on October 1 that his government was in talks with “some” factions of the TTP on a “reconciliation process."
Khan told Turkish state broadcaster TRT that his government was willing to “forgive” TTP militants if a cease-fire deal was reached.
When asked if the Afghan Taliban was facilitating the process, Khan said that "the talks are taking place in Afghanistan, so in that sense yes."
One the same day, a faction of the TTP ordered its fighters to observe a cease-fire until October 20. The Hafiz Gul Bahadar faction directed its fighters to observe a cease-fire for 20 days and halt all their operations against the Pakistani government and security forces.
But the TTP leadership quickly issued a statement rejecting Khan’s claims. The militant group said it was united and there were no divisions in its ranks. The TTP’s spokesperson also called on the group’s fighters to continue attacks.
Sources told RFE/RL that representatives of the TTP have held several meetings with Pakistan intelligence officials in Afghanistan in recent weeks. The TTP has been represented by close associates of Noor Wali Mehsud, who has headed the group since 2018.
“The two sides are fine-tuning their demands and conditions for a cease-fire,” said one of the sources.
Among the TTP’s demands is the release of 100 fighters in Pakistani prisons. In return, the government has demanded a nationwide truce.
“Once the cease-fire is agreed, the Pakistani security forces will not take action against the TTP and the TTP will not carry out attacks on the security forces or civilians,” one source said.
The source said that government negotiators had told the TTP that they could visit their homes in Pakistan but would have to be unarmed. Many members of the TTP are Pashtuns from the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which straddles the border with Afghanistan.
The TTP has also demanded the implementation of Islamic Shar’ia law in Pakistan’s tribal region, a demand that observers say is unlikely to be met.
Since the emergence of the TTP in 2007, Islamabad has signed peace deals with several factions. But none of the agreements has lasted, and most were followed by an uptick in violence.
This is the not the first time that Khan, whose Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party came to power in 2018, has reached out to the TTP.
In 2013, when Khan was part of the opposition, he urged the government to launch talks with the TTP and allow the militants to open an office in Pakistan just as the Afghan Taliban had opened an office in the Gulf state of Qatar.
In 2014, the TTP demanded Khan be included in the committee formed by then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for holding talks with the militant group. Khan declined the offer.
With peace efforts breaking down, the Pakistani Army in June 2014 launched a large-scale offensive against TTP militants, many of whom fled to Afghanistan.
In December that year, the TTP attacked a military-run school in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 147 people, most of them students. It was one of the deadliest militant attacks in Pakistan’s history.