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At the table, with Taliban

Nawaz Sharif’s team has a judicious mix of voices.

Published: February 5, 2014 12:49:45 am
Unlike in Egypt, Pakistan has a ‘political middle’ that can mediate between Islamists and liberals, and that is represented by Sharif’s PML-N. (Reuters) Unlike in Egypt, Pakistan has a ‘political middle’ that can mediate between Islamists and liberals, and that is represented by Sharif’s PML-N. (Reuters)

Nawaz Sharif’s team has a judicious mix of voices.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seemed poised, in the middle of January, to get the army to attack the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan. A retaliatory military sally there had already killed many of their number and probably “softened” the pathologically violent new Taliban chief, Mullah Fazlullah.

By the end of January, Sharif was probably told of this “softening” and changed tack radically to switch to the “talk” mode, with the Taliban still killing innocent Pakistanis all over the country.

What proved that he was actually in “attack” mode earlier was the way he treated a “teacher of the Taliban”, cleric Maulana Samiul Haq of Akora Khattak madrasa, near Peshawar, where the assassins of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto had stayed before going to Rawalpindi in 2007 to complete their job. Haq was suddenly “dropped” and had to slink back to his seminary, complaining that Sharif had not deigned to grant him an audience. Now it’s back to talk mode, and Sharif has nominated four individuals to a team that will talk to a panel likewise chosen by the Taliban.

The four members of the team are: Rustam Shah Mohmand, Irfan Siddiqui, Rahimullah Yusufzai and Major (retd) Muhammad Amir. Mohmand is an old Civil Service of Pakistan officer who served as political agent in the tribal areas, rose to the office of chief secretary of the Frontier Province before being put in charge of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, and finally landed up as ambassador in Kabul. He is linked to Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf and hence prejudiced against the United States and opposed to military operations in the tribal areas. This is balanced only by his equally intense desire to get Pakistan to normalise ties with India, with him swearing that an Indian presence in Afghanistan will not destabilise Pakistan. He was Sharif’s appointee to the committee charged, in the 1990s, with normalising Pakistan’s relations with what is today the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

Siddiqui is advisor to the prime minister and was media consultant to him when the latter languished out of power in Lahore. He is the only non-Pashtun in the team and would like the Taliban to agree to a bilateral ceasefire before the two sides engage. Journalist Yusufzai is a veteran Taliban-watcher, with credibility in the global media, and is sure that his team will end up being a sounding board from where the agenda for the actual talks can be gleaned.

The choice of Amir, a former ISI officer, has given rise to comment, but his background is firmly pro-Sharif — his training inside the army has been to fear the PPP as a liberal party, soft on India and Pakistan’s nuclear programme. He represents the ideological nature of the army, where no wits are required to become an intelligence officer. In 1989, he tried, together with another ISI officer, Brigadier Imtiaz Billa, to persuade some PPP members of the National Assembly to “defect” in order to topple the government of Benazir Bhutto. Operation Midnight Jackal turned out to be a reverse sting in which the PPP politicians filmed the officers in flagrante delicto. Both were fired from service.

Unlike in Egypt, Pakistan has a “political middle” that can mediate between Islamists and liberals, and that is represented by Sharif’s PML-N. It has a nexus with an intensely rightwing army and will lend an ear to the plaints of religious parties, aspiring to a pre-modern utopia, with an umbilical connection with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The ISI loves him and Amir is counted among the officers who leaned in Sharif’s favour when he was challenging the army chiefs.

Amir has come on TV in the past to confess that he did stage the Midnight Jackals plot to subvert Bhutto. He comes from Swabi, where his brother, Maulana Tayyab, ran the famous Panj Pir madrasa, where Taliban chief Fazlullah picked up his ultra-radical, anti-democracy Islam, on the basis of which he captured the valley of Swat in 2007. The madrasa earned a bad reputation as a jihadi nursery. After Amir was retired from the army, the PPP tried to besiege the Panj Pir madrasa with a police force but was unsuccessful in bringing it to heel, probably because of a hidden abetting hand from the ISI.

Expelled from Islamabad, both Imtiaz Billa and Amir were given sanctuary by Sharif in Punjab, which was fighting a province-centre war with Bhutto. Both the intelligence officers served the cause of this war. After the PPP government fell in 1990, the next government, under Sharif, actually reinstated the Panj Pir seminary by taking a procession of trucks to Swabi, led by media advisor Mushahid Hussain and ex-ISI chief General Hamid Gul, who had also since been retired by army chief General Asif Nawaz for insubordination.

Sharif was loaded with anti-American baggage, intellectually chaperoned by Mushahid Hussain and spiritually aided by a brainwashed nation convinced that the US was egging India on to destroy Pakistan. This is still the case, but Sharif is now a mature politician, no longer interested in the rhetoric of his advisors.

There is clearer evidence of the ISI nexus with terrorism. In April 2010, two former ISI officials, ex-air force officer Khalid Khawaja and Colonel Imam, whose loyalties clearly lay with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, were captured by the Asian Tigers faction of the Taliban in Waziristan. Before being executed, Khawaja confessed on the internet that he was working for the pro-al-Qaeda and -Taliban faction of the ISI.

The video on the internet had him saying: “The top jihadi commanders are the ISI’s proxies and are given a free hand to collect funds. The leaders include Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil [who laid the foundations of the International Islamic Front with Osama bin Laden in 1998], and Maulana Masood Azhar [chief of Jaish-e-Mohammed].”

The Pakistani press has seen a few voices of criticism raised against Amir, because of his murky past, but there is some sense in taking on board people like him when talking to the Taliban. The Taliban say they are willing to talk and, for the first time, they have declared their confidence in the team chosen by Sharif. But will the talks go anywhere?

The “crunch” person is Taliban chief Mullah Fazlullah. Does Sharif’s team have traction with him because of Amir? Will he cease fire? What will he demand in return? Are the Taliban “softened” enough to change policy? If they are divided on policy, will any decision to cease fire actually hold? Will the Taliban resile from their demand for the imposition of their kind of horribly punitive Sharia? Most analysts think nothing will come of the talks but the perceptive among them think the meetings will reveal the mind of the Taliban leadership to some extent, after which the Pakistan army could invade the Taliban hideout in North Waziristan.

The writer is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek’, Pakistan

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