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By Zia Ur Rehman

15-22 December, 2011

Although the Pakistani government has denied reports of a ceasefire and peace talks with Taliban militants, Bajaur Agency militant leader Maulvi Faqir Muhammad claimed the government had released 145 militants from jails as part of a truce.

Security experts and tribal elders believe that the move would have consequences for peace in the tribal areas, and may also heighten tensions between Pakistan and the United States.

An undated image of Taliban commander Maulvi Faqir Mohammed

Reports of peace negotiations between Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the government have been emerging since the passage of a resolution endorsing talks with Pakistani Taliban groups at an All-Parties Conference held in Islamabad on October 18.

On November 21, a foreign news agency reported that a ceasefire had been brokered between the military and the Pakistani Taliban, but an army spokesman refuted the report strongly and categorically. He called all such reports “concocted, baseless and unfounded”.

But TTP’s deputy chief Faqir Muhammad admitted on December 10, that “negotiations are in progress” and had been “going very well so far”. “If the talks succeed in Bajaur Agency, then the TTP will sign a comprehensive truce with the government,” he said.

He also said the government had released 145 local militants as a goodwill gesture. The claim was corroborated by a tribal elder in Mamond Tehsil of Bajaur Agency. He said some of the arrested local militants were seen in the area. “Muhammad and his close associates recently came to Mamond,” the elder said, “but no one knows their whereabouts now.”

Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s December 6 statement, in which he thanked the Taliban for not carrying out terrorist attacks during Ashura, is also being seen in this context.

An MNA elected from the tribal areas said that the TTP had preconditions to the talks, including a closure of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, vacation of Shamsi airbase, and the announcement of a review of Pakistan-US ties. The demands were met in the aftermath of the November 26 NATO attack on a Pakistani checkpost in Mohmand Agency that killed 24 soldiers.

The remaining demands, presented publicly by the TTP on November 19, include the enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan, a troop pullout from the tribal areas, release of militants from jails, and compensation for affected tribesmen.

Other important leaders of TTP, including spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, and key leader in Bajaur Agency Dadullah, said Faqir Muhammad was not authorized to negotiate on behalf of the TTP.

Dadullah claimed that Muhammad was planning to surrender. Ehsan said a handful of people talking to the government could not be seen as representing the Taliban.

A military patrol in Inayat Kalay during the 2009 operation in Bajaur

TTP Mohmand Agency chief Abdul Wali Khan, also known as Omar Khalid, denied there were any negotiations taking place at the central level, but added that local leaders could make a truce with the government. “Stopping attacks does not mean ceasefire,” he said. “It is a strategy.”

Security experts say various groups of the Taliban are loosely connected, and there are differences in the TTP ranks.

“Dadullah is now the head of TTP in Bajaur Agency. He was appointed by Hakimullah Mehsud and replaced Faqir Muhammad. The latter has no importance now,” said Aqeel Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based analyst who has written three books on militancy.

A militant leader from South Waziristan also said that Dadullah, whose real name is Jamaluddin, is the real representative of the Mehsud in Bajaur. Faqir Muhammad had ordered his men not to fight the Pakistani security forces during the 2010 military operation in Bajaur, he said, and that irritated the central leadership of TTP and their Mehsud supporters.

Faqir Muhammad had also called a one-sided ceasefire in a speech on his FM radio in 2009, saying the Taliban did not want to fight the army and that there had been misunderstandings between them. Four days after the announcement, the military suspended its operations in Bajaur.

Yousafzai said negotiations between militants and military officers could be held at local levels, but not at the level of the top leadership of the TTP and the army. The recent blowing up of schools, an attack on a DI Khan police station, killing of tribal social activists in Khyber Agency, and attacks on vehicles carrying NATO supplies in Quetta show there is no ceasefire.

“The demands of either party are unacceptable to the other,” he said. “The TTP always makes impossible demands, such as enforcement of Sharia in the country and termination of the ongoing military operation in FATA, while the government demands the militants lay down arms and surrender.”

There are also unconfirmed reports that Faqir Muhammad would join forces with Hafiz Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan and Maulvi Nazeer Wazir of South Waziristan to fight the TTP at the government’s behest.

Bahadur and Wazir fall in the establishment’s “good Taliban” category because they do not carry out attacks inside Pakistan. The Mehsud-led TTP has strong connections with Al Qaeda and other global jihadi networks, and is ruthlessly targeting Pakistani government officials and installations with their help.

The United States is watching the developments cautiously, especially after heightened tensions between Islamabad and Washington in the in the aftermath of NATO’s Mohmand attack.

“This development can also be seen as a pressure tactic against the US,” says Arif Ansaar, an expert associated with Politact, a Washington-based think tank. Pakistan’s threat perception has changed after the Mohmand attack, as indicated by statements made by army officials, he said. The volatile situation in the Middle East and the rise of Iran also change the nature of threat perception in the AfPak region, he said.

Tribal elders of Bajaur are concerned about the reported truce and say it will legitimize the terrorist activities of the militants. “We have seen that past truces between the government and the militants have failed to bring stability. They merely gave time to the militants to regroup and consolidate, and then launch fresh attacks on the local population,” said Malik Yahyah Khan, a leader of an anti-Taliban lashkar in Bajaur.

After a controversial peace deal in Swat signed on April 20, 2008 by the Awami National Party government and Sufi Muhammad, head of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), militants led by Maulana Fazlullah militants were able to extend their influence to Buner and other adjacent areas, and the army was eventually compelled to launch a massive military operation in Malakand Division that displaced more than 2 million people.

It is premature to say whether the new truce in Bajaur will work, but it indicates there is a change in Pakistan’s security policy after the recent worsening of ties between Islamabad and Washington.

The writer is a journalist and researcher and works on militancy and human rights. mail: