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Pakistan enlists Afghan Taliban to rein in group accused of bombing Chinese dam workers

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Pakistani rescuers attend to people injured in a suspected suicide bomb attack on a bus carrying Chinese engineers to the Dasu Dam in Kohistan. Photo: EPA

Afghanistan’s Taliban regime is playing a pivotal role in backchannel talks between  Pakistan’s government and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan insurgents (TTP), top officials indicated, after Islamabad offered a conditional amnesty for surrendering militants.

While the prospects of a peace deal remain remote, officials said Pakistan hopes the Taliban’s involvement will help it to contain the resurgent threat posed by the TTP’s estimated 5,000 fighters based in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Since May, the TTP has taken advantage of chaos in Afghanistan to launch a campaign of practically daily attacks against Pakistani security forces deployed in areas along the border.

Islamabad blamed the TTP for a deadly July 14 vehicular suicide bombing attack against Chinese nationals working on the Dasu hydropower project in northern Pakistan.

Ten Chinese and four Pakistanis were killed in the incident, and work remains suspended on the project because it is taking time for the Pakistani military to establish improved security arrangements in the remote Kohistan region where the dam is being built.

Since the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15, the TTP has claimed responsibility for more than 70 terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

The imminent threat of an attack prompted New Zealand’s cricket team to withdraw at the last minute from a match against Pakistan in Rawalpindi on September 17 and leave the country.

England on Monday also cancelled plans for a series of matches in Pakistan in October, citing the same security concerns as New Zealand.

A day before the hurriedly abandoned match with New Zealand, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Pakistan could pardon the TTP if Afghanistan’s Taliban were able to persuade its brethren to cease fighting.

“If they are willing to mend fences and not take the law into their hands and not get involved in terrorist activities and they submit and surrender to the writ of the government and the constitution of Pakistan, we are even open to giving them a pardon,” said Qureshi, in an interview with the Urdu-language edition of Britain’s The Independent on September 16.

Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi similarly suggested a general amnesty could be offered to the TTP in an interview with the local Dawn News television channel on September 11.

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Pakistani rescuers inspect the scene of a suspected suicide bomb that targeted a bus carrying Chinese engineers to the Dasu Dam in Kohistan. Photo: EPA

Amnesty offer

Pakistan’s offer of an amnesty for surrendering insurgents followed backchannel negotiations with the TTP, said Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

“These are statements of intent by the Pakistani government at the highest level to underscore its willingness to start formal negotiations,” he said.

Basit said the Haqqani Network faction of the Afghan Taliban covertly facilitated talks between Islamabad and the TTP in 2020.

The negotiations failed because the TTP insisted on the imposition of an Islamic sharia-based system of government in Pakistan’s northwest tribal districts, the insurgents’ erstwhile strongholds until they fled to Afghanistan to evade military operations in 2014 and 2015.

In a September 17 statement, the TTP dismissed Pakistan’s offer of an amnesty and reiterated its position, but it did not reject talks with Islamabad.

“We believe in meaningful dialogue if it ensures implementation of sharia in Pakistan,” TTP spokesman Mohammad Khurasani said.

Rather than a genuine push for a negotiated settlement, however, both sides were looking to leverage talks to their advantage, analysts said.

“I don’t think the TTP is really interested in peace, given its recent behaviour such as its mergers with other groups and uptick in attacks,” said Amira Jadoon, an assistant professor at the US Military Academy, West Point, in New York.

In two recent interviews, TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud has sought to restyle his global terrorist group as a nationalist Islamist movement akin to the Afghan Taliban, and claimed it was now at war solely with Pakistan’s government.

In July, he told US broadcaster CNN that the TTP aimed to establish an independent Islamist state in Pakistan’s northwest tribal areas.

Speaking to Japanese newspaper The Mainichi on Monday, Mehsud once again denied TTP involvement in terrorist attacks against Chinese nationals in Pakistan, claiming: “There is no hostility between the TTP and China.”

But he also issued a warning to Beijing not to get involved in its fight with Islamabad.

The Chinese government and its people should “not be influenced by Pakistan’s conspiracy and deception, and avoid initiating a war against the TTP,” Mehsud said.

On the other hand, Pakistan is looking to weaken the TTP by persuading rank-and-file militants to return home from eastern Afghanistan after years of exile.

Parallel to the Taliban’s promises not to allow Afghan territory to be used for cross-border attacks, Pakistan hopes it can prevent the TTP from staging a comeback.

Pakistan’s military spokesman Major General Baber Iftikhar on Monday said Islamabad was confident the Taliban would live up to its word, despite repeated incidents of Pakistani border posts being targeted by TTP snipers from Afghanistan.

“We have no reason to doubt their intentions, and that is why we are in constant touch with them to protect our national interest,” he said, in an interview with Riyadh-based Urdu News.

Afghanistan’s Taliban, however, has no intention of arresting or expelling allied Pakistani and other foreign militant groups – such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which Beijing blames for violence in China’s western Xinjiang region – which helped the Taliban win the 20-year war against Nato-led forces, analysts said.

Jadoon said the Taliban would “try to sway the TTP in favour of negotiating some sort of peace deal.”

“But I honestly don’t think the Afghan Taliban will be willing to become too involved in this matter, especially now that they have to secure their political control within Afghanistan,” she said.

Instead, analysts said the Taliban would use administrative measures to prevent cross-border attacks – it recently banned the entry into Afghanistan of several Pakistan-based TTP commanders accused of involvement in smuggling.

“Under no condition will the Taliban use force against the TTP unless it challenges its ideological supremacy in Afghanistan,” said Singapore-based analyst Basit.

Hidden costs

Aside from the human cost of a prolonged low-intensity war with the Pakistani Taliban, Jadoon said Islamabad was concerned about the broader damage it would inflict – as indicated by the sudden abandonment of the cricket tours and the suspension of work at Dasu.

“Not only does this result in casualties but is also costly for the state in various ways, such as its international reputation and economic ties with China,” she said.

As such, analysts said Pakistan would avoid launching a high-profile counterterrorist campaign in the northwest tribal districts where the TTP has re-established a scattered presence.

Local tribes suffered huge losses of life and property during the TTP occupation of the region and subsequent counterinsurgency operations, and would staunchly oppose another sweeping campaign by the Pakistani military.

“Without favourable public opinion, it is difficult to launch a large-scale military operation, which would incur tremendous economic and political costs,” Basit said.

The situation in Afghanistan is also in flux, rendering the situation along the border too unpredictable for Pakistan to risk a major military action – TTP reinforcements might stream across the border, despite the Taliban’s promises to restrain them, he said.

Instead, Pakistan would continue to conduct targeted intelligence-based operations against the TTP in the northwest tribal areas and parts of western Balochistan province bordering Afghanistan.

“Pakistan will have to use a mix of amnesty, diplomacy and military means to rein in the TTP,” Basit said.