A Tehreek-e-Taliban fighter in a file photo. The terror group is ramping up its attacks in Pakistan. Photo: Facebook

Pakistan is closing in on a peace deal with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group that some warn could hand yet another victory to terror outfits bent on imposing Islamic Sharia law in South Asia.

After seeing at least 119 Pakistani soldiers and hundreds of civilians killed in a surge of TTP attacks between August 2021 and March 2022, Pakistan and the militant outfit widely known as the “Pakistani Taliban” recently announced a mutual “indefinite ceasefire.”

Pakistan has agreed to release certain high-profile TTP fighters and commanders as per the deal, which has been facilitated by the Afghan Taliban’s leadership – especially Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was present at several rounds of talks held in Afghanistan.

The Haqqanis, a Taliban clan notorious for its ties to transnational jihadi networks like al Qaeda, are now believed to be using their political power to protect various militant groups lingering in Afghanistan, including the TTP.

UN reports have claimed there are at least 3,000-5,000 TTP fighters based in Afghanistan. A peace agreement with the TTP would potentially bring many of these militants into Pakistan, allowing them to establish their own officially recognized center of power.

The TTP’s key demands include allowances to implement Shariah law in areas under its de facto control, especially parts of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province formerly known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). 

The TTP also wants to reverse FATA’s merger with the KPK, which was implemented in 2018. Its key objective, as most analysts and politicians opposing the talks believe and told Asia Times, is to carve out a territory in Pakistan to establish a “mini-Islamic emirate” – similar to the one the Taliban has imposed on Kabul since seizing power last August.

Even if the TTP nominally accepts Pakistan’s demand to disband, it will continue to “operate as the primary mechanism of enforcing the Sharia law, just like the Afghan Taliban,” said a senior Pakistani politician who declined to be identified but who is directly familiar with the ongoing talks.

Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) fighters in a file photo at an undisclosed location. The terror outfit is ramping up attacks in Pakistan. Photo: Facebook / Dawn

The peace talks are, therefore, a risky gamble for Islamabad. In 2009, when Pakistan signed a similar agreement with the TTP that allowed it to implement Sharia law in the Swat Valley in KPK, the end result was bloodshed via prolonged fighting that killed thousands and displaced millions.

With that previous agreement’s failure to bring “peace” and with certified terror groups sponsoring and facilitating the ongoing talks, many are questioning why Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government is talking to the TTP at all.  

There are internal and external factors that explain his stance, despite the fact the TTP has refused to recognize the supremacy of the 1973 constitution and is demanding a Sharia-based regime that would violate the law of the land.

Internally, the Pakistan military – which has spent several years fighting the TTP and has consistently claimed to be beating the group – is under heavy political pressure.

For the past four years, it has been the subject of controversy over its support for the recently ousted Imran Khan regime. As such, many political groups in Pakistan hold the Pakistan army partly if not directly responsible for pushing the country to the verge of bankruptcy.

The re-emergence of the TTP at this delicate time has likely pushed the military’s hand towards a compromise. The TTP has already established its capacity to launch sophisticated attacks on both civilian and military targets.

As one central leader of the KPK-based Awami National Party (ANP), which lost many of its key leaders to TTP attacks between 2008 and 2013, said: “These talks show that the TTP was never defeated. It was protected by the Afghan Taliban, who have always been supported by Pakistan’s security establishment.”

The re-emergence of the TTP is, therefore, a “direct failure of Pakistan’s security policy dominated by the military establishment,” the ANP leader added.

The TTP’s re-emergence has also come while Baloch militant groups have shown a renewed capacity to organize attacks in Pakistan’s main urban centers, including Lahore and Karachi. There is, therefore, “very little appetite for another war,” said the senior politician.

The Pakistan military’s options in dealing with the TTP are limited by the economic situation, which is “its own doing,” according to a senior politician from the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the “sensitivity” of the issue.

New Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is talking to the TTP. Image: Screengrab / NTV

There is, therefore, a willingness to accommodate the TTP’s demands, even if they are “outrageous and challenge Pakistan’s constitution and rule of law,” added the PML-N leader.

The TTP is no doubt aware of Pakistan’s precarious situation, which some say has allowed it to negotiate from a position of strength. The TTP will, therefore, seek to expand “beyond its area of jurisdiction” (e.g. FATA), according to the ANP leader, as so far agreed in the talks.

But the TTP’s strength is also tied to the extra-regional support the wider Taliban “movement” is receiving, especially from China.

Beijing has repeatedly said it accepts the Taliban’s “right” to rule according to its own Islamic traditions. Beijing’s support is tied to the Taliban’s assurances it will not allow the anti-China ETIM to attack its interests in Afghanistan or use Afghan soil as a launching pad for attacks in Xinjiang.

As the senior Pakistani politician familiar with the ongoing talks claims, Beijing is putting pressure on Pakistan to find its own “peace” with the TTP.

The TTP has recently and repeatedly attacked China’s interests, projects and personnel in Pakistan. For China, it is important that Pakistan “accommodates” some of the TTP’s demands and end the group’s “war on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor”, the same politician said.

“For Pakistan, it is incredibly important to restore Chinese confidence in Pakistan – especially Pakistan’s ability to provide ample security to Chinese personnel,” added the PML-N leader.

He denied there was “Chinese pressure” on the Sharif government but confirmed that Pakistan wants the TPP to stop attacking Chinese interests in exchange for any concessions.

A mountain pass along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Image: Facebook

But the talks are broadly risky not only because they could create an officially recognized “Taliban territory” inside Pakistan, but also because they may be a prelude to yet another period of raging Islamist terrorism in Pakistan.

“The people of FATA stand to suffer in every sense,” said Sana Ullah, an activist of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) who has been advocating for the “de-militarization and de-Talibanization” of FATA for several years.

“If the TTP is allowed to implement its own version of Shariah law, people will suffer, as did the people of Swat under its oppression. And, if oppression increases or the TTP expands in the future – which it will – it will bring another war,” Ullah said. “Thousands could die and many more could face long-term displacement.”