Let Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail without us

October 22, 2013

Adding to an unenviable list of challenges that already includes earthquakes, sectarian violence and an economy teetering near collapse, Pakistan’s leaders are attempting to open a new round of high-stakes peace negotiations with homegrown insurgents, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The United States cannot do much to help these talks succeed, but President Barack Obama should use his October 23 summit with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ensure that if Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail, they fail in ways that unite mainstream Pakistanis in the fight against violent extremism rather than creating new rifts between Washington and Islamabad.

Unlike the Afghan Taliban groups that have had a live-and-let-live arrangement with Pakistani authorities, directing their violence beyond Pakistan’s borders, the TTP has conducted attacks with devastating effect on the Pakistani military and government, as well as innocent civilians. Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, describes the group as the state’s top security threat. And because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed, fast-growing state of nearly 200 million citizens that borders India, China, Iran and the Arabian Sea, the TTP’s disruptive potential also threatens U.S. security.

Peace talks are not, in principle, a bad idea. If Pakistan can talk its way to peace with the TTP without jettisoning its constitution along the way — it should. That said, it is nearly impossible to believe the TTP, a group that has so far shown itself hostile to any serious reconciliation with Islamabad, would now put down its arms and play by democratic rules.

Sooner or later, these parleys are almost certain to fail. The crucial issue for Washington is how that failure unfolds. Two historical examples are illustrative.

In 2009, an earlier deal with militants based in Pakistan’s scenic Swat Valley collapsed after it became clear that government compromises had only emboldened the Taliban to seize ground and impose a reign of terror. That deal, though, failed in the best possible way: It clarified the Taliban’s anti-Pakistan (not just anti-U.S.) character and established popular support for the army to move in and roll back Taliban advances.

Unfortunately, four years later it appears that Pakistanis need to relearn similar lessons — in part because of the effective politicking of Pakistan’s charismatic cricket-star-turned-opposition-politician, Imran Khan. Khan and his supporters claim that Pakistan’s Taliban insurgents are motivated by external, particularly American, interference in Pakistan, whether in the form of drone strikes, covert operations or military incursions along the Afghan border.

If TTP talks again fail in ways that expose the group’s true, anti-state colors, the appeal of Khan’s message would likely fade and the army could anticipate broad support for new counter-TTP operations.

Peace talks, worryingly, could also fail in dangerous ways. In 2004, the first U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed Nek Muhammad, an al Qaeda-linked Taliban commander who had just concluded a peace deal with the Pakistani army. Rightly or wrongly, Khan is far from the only Pakistani pointing to that episode as evidence that the United States aims to pit Pakistanis against each other. Therefore, Khan argues, rejecting cooperation with the United States is Pakistan’s best course of action.

If Washington again offers Pakistanis such easy reasons to blame the United States for failed peace talks, it would not merely exacerbate (already rabid) anti-Americanism. Far worse, it would distract and confuse the public debate on pressing domestic security issues, dissipate national unity and undercut political and military leaders who would otherwise favor forceful operations when negotiations break down.

In an ideal world, Washington would avoid even the appearance of impropriety with respect to these talks. U.S. officials would go silent — just as they smartly did prior to Pakistan’s elections last May. In addition, U.S. drone strikes would cease until the insurgents ruin the process on their own.

In reality, however, the situation is not so simple. Islamabad’s talks with the TTP are only one piece in the wider puzzle of war and counterterror missions that Washington faces in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Charged with these other difficult assignments, U.S. defense and intelligence officials are loath to relinquish drones. For they believe drones provide the best — and often the only — way to attack adversaries holed up inside Pakistan’s tribal belt.

These issues will likely come to a head when Sharif visits the White House on Wednesday. Obama should use their meeting to offer a compromise: U.S. drones will target only a negotiated short list of senior al Qaeda leaders while the TTP talks continue if, in return, Sharif ends Pakistan’s public opposition to drones (including in the United Nations). Pakistan must begin to discuss a comprehensive counterterror partnership with the United States for the future.

Like any good compromise, it would be painful for both sides. But it would also lay the groundwork for significantly better U.S.-Pakistan dealings over the long haul — even as it improves the odds that this round of TTP peace talks fails in the best possible way.


PHOTO (Top): Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses attendees at a flag raising ceremony to mark the country’s 67th Independence Day in Islamabad, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

PHOTO (Insert 1):Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani at a joint military exercise between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in Mangla, in the Pakistan’s Jhelum district, October 6, 2011. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

PHOTO (Insert 2): Imran Khan, Pakistani cricketer turned politician, speaks during an interview at his residence in Islamabad, November 16, 2011. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed


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It is often pointed out that the total amount of support in financial support that the US hands out as foriegn aide is well less than 1% of our total budget, and that is true. However, if the total amount of aide that we give to any single country is relatively large in comparison to the funds that would normally have available through their normal taxation and revenues, then they have every motivation to continue the problems that the US is interested in eliminating. Pakistan is just such a country. They do not want to solve the problems that have our interest and for which we pay them billions annually. The same goes for Afghanistan, which wants us there forever since the government makes more from foriegn aide than through other means. We must as a country recognize this and adjust or we will be dragged down into the pit with the monsters that would kill their own people for money. Although, we may get there too if the religious nuts get their way.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

“Khan argues, rejecting cooperation with the United States is Pakistan’s best course of action.” Indeed, and stay away from the UK, Russia and China as well.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

Also stay away from Saudi, Israel and all the Big Oil States. Pakistan is sovereign, act like it.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

Yes please leave us alone and let us handle USA! True analysis but dear author but you probably don’t know your own CIA! Had they been this much fair and innocent there would have no problems in the world-u don’t know the curse of the world-CIA!and American president is nothing but a puppet in their hands! Yet still For once leave us alone and STOP DRONE ATTACKS!

Posted by Zaneera | Report as abusive

We should continue to use taxpayer funds to pay American arms manufacturers and distributors to send military aid to the Pakistani ISI that coludes with the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan. We’ve known this is the case for many years, yet we continue to support this atrocity.
Why did the Obama Administration not inform the Pakistanis about their hunt for Usama? Guess they’re not complete idiots.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive