Can Sharif mend fences with the military?

The ongoing peace talks between the Pakistan government and the outlawed militant organisation Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) hit a roadblock in mid-April following the abrupt decision by the latter not to extend the 40-day ceasefire that ended on April 10.

As expected, terrorist attacks resumed within days of the collapse of the ceasefire. There had been a significant drop in the number of attacks during the period of the ceasefire, particularly in the conflict zone of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan. The few attacks that did take place were claimed by little known and unfamiliar radical militant groups opposed to the peace process.

Although the TTP said it was in favour of continuing the peace talks with the government even after the end of the ceasefire, federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan argued that meaningful dialogue cannot be held if the attacks on security and law enforcement agencies or public places continue. Being the government’s focal person for the peace talks, he spoke for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he made it clear that a ceasefire by both sides was necessary to move the process forward.The end of the already fragile ceasefire and resumption of terrorist strikes, which included two that targeted policemen near Peshawar and at Charsadda in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and caused the death of six police personnel within a span of ten hours on April 22, created uncertainty about the peace talks. This happened when the government and the TTP negotiators were preparing for the second round of face-to-face peace talks and a secure venue had already been decided. The confrontation between the two sides could become intense in the event of an increase in the number of terrorist attacks because the Pakis

tan Army, under its new chief General Raheel Sharif, has warned that it will retaliate if any attack is launched by the militants against soldiers, policemen and also the common people. In fact, this has now become the stated policy — that no terrorist strike will go unanswered. This was promptly implemented by the military in February when it carried out airstrikes against suspected militants’ positions in North Waziristan, South Waziristan and Khyber Agency following Taliban attacks on the security forces.

Earlier, on March 26, the first direct peace talks in a decade between the Pakistani Taliban and the government were held in the Taliban-controlled Bilandkhel tribal area in Orakzai Agency, but there was no breakthrough as both sides stuck to their positions. The five Taliban central shura (council) members at the meeting adopted a tough position in the talks by refusing to concede the demand by the four government negotiators for an extension to the on

e-month ceasefire ending on March 31 and the release of civilians kidnapped by the militants for ransom and for securing freedom for Taliban prisoners. However, some days later, the TTP agreed to extend the ceasefire for ten days only until April 10.

The government team at the talks didn’t accept the Taliban’s demand for pulling out army troops from the Ladha and Makeen area in South Waziristan so that it could be declared a ‘peace zone’ where the Taliban could move freely and meet government negotiators. The government also denied holding any non-combatants, even though the Taliban continued to insist that the army had set up secret detention centres where several hundred unarmed TTP supporters, including women, children and old men, were being held. Later, it turned out that only two women were in the list of almost 800 ‘non-combatants’ that the TTP wanted the government to release. The definition of ‘non-combatants’ and whether any are in the custody of the army became a sticking point in the negotiations and the matter is still unresolved.

Though the two sides agreed to continue the peace talks, logistics problems and mistrust kept haunting the process and the holding of the second face-to-face meeting was unduly delayed.

Finally, in March, the government released some 19 Taliban suspects in South Waziristan after they were cleared by the security forces. They belonged to the Mehsud tribe and had been taken into custody about two years ago during search operations, on suspicion of being Taliban militants. However, the TTP pointed out that these weren’t the ‘non-combatant’ prisoners whose release they had sought during the peace talks with the government. For its part, the government was reluctant to free many detainees at this stage. It was also seeking the release of civilians kidnapped by the Taliban including high-profile persons such as the sons of former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and the late Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, and the Vice-Chancellor of Islamic College University, Peshawar Professor Ajmal Khan. The first two are reportedly in the custody of al-Qaeda-linked foreign militants. The Uzbek militants affiliated to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) are demanding the release of 25 militants and payment of Rs4 billion as ransom for the release of Shahbaz Taseer, son of Salman Taseer who was serving as governor of Pakistan’s biggest province Punjab when one of his bodyguards shot him dead for sympathising with a Christian woman held on blasphemy charges.

The government later announced that it would release another batch of 13 ‘non-combatant’ prisoners on the demand of the Pakistani Taliban from the list of 800 presented by it to the negotiations teams. This was a desperate bid to move forward the stalemated peace process. However, the government delayed the release of the 13 men, apparently due to principled opposition from the army and vocal criticism by the opposition parties and sections of civil society and the media.

The situation was made complex by the internal fighting between two factions of the Pakistani Taliban, the larger one led by Khan Said alias Sajna and the smaller headed by Shahryar Mehsud in South Waziristan. The fighting was due to a host of reasons ranging from leadership tussles to a past history of hostilities. The immediate cause of the clashes was their differences over holding peace talks with the government as one faction felt the TTP had conceded more than it had achieved until now. Two bomb explosions, one targeting a train bound for Quetta and the other a fruit and vegetable market in Islamabad, also created uncertainty about the peace talks. The two explosions, which killed more than 40 innocent people, happened after a gap of more than a month of calm. The TTP denied its involvement in the bombing as it claimed it is abiding by the ceasefire. A Baloch separatist group claimed responsibility for both the bombings, but its claim about the Islamabad attack was termed ridiculous by the government as the Baloch had never before launched any such attack in Islamabad or outside Balochistan. It is widely believed that anti-peace process militant factions were behind the Islamabad bombing.

The TTP later claimed to have secured a ceasefire in the four-day internecine fighting between its two Mehsud factions in South Waziristan in which a number of fighters, ranging from 13 to 52 according to different sources, were killed. However, the infighting could flare up again as the killings have triggered blood-feuds that could provoke revenge killings in future. It was obvious that both the ceasefires, the one between the warring Taliban factions and the other involving the militants and the government, were important and needed to remain in place to create the right conditions for the peace talks.

The peace process also came under pressure due to the assassination of two Sindhi nationalist leaders belonging to the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz, which led to wide protests in rural Sindh province and prompted the party to urge the UN to intervene and stop Pakistan’s intelligence agencies from murdering its activists.

Another issue that shifted the focus away from the peace talks was the attempt on the life of popular TV anchor Hamid Mir, who survived the attack in Karachi. His family accused the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of involvement in the attack. The army reacted angrily by accusing the Geo TV channel that employs Hamid Mir and sections of the media of maligning the ISI and its chief Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam Abbasi without any evidence, and threatening to take them to court. The defence ministry also initiated a move to have the Geo TV channel closed. It prompted protests that this was aimed at suppressing the media and deflecting criticism from the military.

Around the same time, the seemingly cordial relations between the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the powerful military came under stress following a tough statement by the Army chief General Raheel Sharif, in which he pledged to protect the military’s dignity against undue criticism by politicians and sections of the media. At least two ministers of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet had criticised the army’s past role, though their criticism was directed primarily against the detained former Pakistan Army chief and president General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf. General Raheel Sharif, who was appointed by Nawaz Sharif late last year on the retirement of General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, had given the unusual statement after being asked by Pakistan Army commandoes serving in General Musharraf’s former SSG unit why the army was being criticised by politicians and the media, despite their sacrifices for the nation. Though Nawaz Sharif tried to do damage control by asking his ministers to avoid issuing controversial statements, the army chief’s remarks fuelled speculations that all is not well between the government and the military. Two divisive issues were cited — the trial of Musharraf on treason charges and the release of some Taliban prisoners by the government. The military has reluctantly backed the peace talks and it is unhappy with the way Musharraf was dragged into the courts.

Though Nawaz Sharif has been making efforts not to provoke the military — indeed he made a point of visiting the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul near Abbottabad to be the chief guest at the annual passing out parade of the commissioned army officers, and praised General Raheel Sharif’s leadership — their relations still suffer from a degree of distrust. The government and the military differ on certain issues, including relations with India and Afghanistan, the fate of General Musharraf, who is being tried for high reason for abrogating the Constitution, the Kashmir dispute, and peace talks with the Taliban. Some of these disputes have reportedly been resolved, but others persist. The fate of peace talks with the Taliban will also depend on the evolving civil-military relations as Nawaz Sharif continues to make efforts to mend fences with the military.
— Rahimullah Yusufzai