Campaigning ahead of the general election last May, Sharif pledged to negotiate a peace deal with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan’s Express Tribune on Monday quoted a senior official in his government as saying a “working group” to push this ahead would likely be formed after an all-party conference later this month.
News of Sharif’s plan to negotiate with what he calls “reconcilable groups” among the myriad militant factions operating in the northwestern tribal areas along the Afghan border comes amid reports that the TTP has begun to send fighters to join the anti-Assad opposition in Syria.
Allied to al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, the TTP’s main theater has been within Pakistan, where it has carried out hundreds of suicide attacks and killed thousands of people since 2007.
But it has also targeted the United States, which blames it for attacks including a 2010 suicide bombing at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, in which six Pakistanis were killed. The TTP claimed responsibility the same year for a foiled attempt to detonate a bomb in New York City’s Times Square. The U.S. government then formally labeled the TTP a “foreign terrorist organization.”
The group’s reported new focus on Syria is in line with its declared desire to be part of a wider “jihad.”
Dawn, a Karachi daily, quoted an associate of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud on Monday as saying an al-Qaeda operational commander in Syria had asked the group “to be part of a global jihad against the tyrant Syrian regime and we have agreed to send the fighters.”
“The TTP has a global agenda of fighting jihad against the infidels and this movement of sending fighters is part of that spirit,” the aide said.
Al-Qaeda and other Salafi elements are among the various groups fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Obama administration wants to start sending lethal aid to the opposition, but says it will only arm carefully vetted groups attached to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The deployment of TTP fighters in Syria will further complicate an already murky situation, where tensions between Salafi jihadists and FSA members are growing even as the regime, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, presses home offensive against rebel-held areas.
TTP’s involvement in Syria will also likely fuel the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, as Pakistani Sunni jihadists have long waged a deadly campaign against minority Shias at home.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday the U.S. was looking into reports of TTP involvement in Syria but had long made clear its concerns about “the influx of foreign fighters into Syria who seek to capitalize on the situation in Syria and foment violence for their own benefit.”
She noted that “the people of Pakistan have suffered greatly from terrorism, including at the hands of TTP,” a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.
Back in Pakistan, Sharif says holding talks with the TTP is necessary if the violence that has plagued the country for several years is to end.
His information minister, Pervez Rashid, said at the weekend that if peace talks can be held with militants in Doha – a reference to the now-stalled attempt by the U.S. to meet with the Afghan Taliban – then there is no reason they cannot be held in Islamabad.
Several past Pakistani leaders have tried to broker peace deals with the TTP and its precursors, including ceasefire pledges, pardons for wanted leaders and agreements to allow the militants to impose shari’a in their areas. But every initiative since 2006 ended in failure, leading to increased violence on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border.
Whenever the authorities have negotiated or struck such deals in the past, U.S. and NATO officials warned of a negative impact on security in Afghanistan, but each time the Pakistani authorities went ahead anyway.
“As far as the TTP is concerned, it is time for Pakistan to rethink its policy about the group,” the Lahore Daily Times said in an editorial on Tuesday. “Having become doubly dangerous by aligning with international terrorist organizations, their strength if not curtailed and crushed could destabilize the country further.”