While the United States is fixated on negotiations over Syria’s chemical weapons, other talks of consequence were on the verge of beginning between Pakistan and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban). Ninety-six days after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office, the All Parties Conference finally convened. Participants agreed to initiate dialogue with militant groups waging war against the state, starting with the Pakistani Taliban. Washington is wisely treating this, publicly at least, as an internal matter for Pakistan. However, the consequences of this effort could be felt throughout the region.

Stephen Tankel
Tankel was a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, where his research focuses on insurgency, terrorism, and the evolution of nonstate armed groups.
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Previous All Parties Conferences endorsed initiating attempts at a negotiated peace, most recently in advance of the May 2013 elections, which brought Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N) to power. Many observers, myself included, viewed this as a ploy to reduce attacks during an election season. After expressing initial interest, the Pakistani Taliban instead launched a withering assault against select parties deemed to have a secular agenda and to be responsible for the military’s incursions into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The Pakistan Muslim League (N) escaped relatively unscathed and its candidates remained silent as many of their opponents were slain.

Since his election, Sharif has maintained an interest in opening negotiations, even as he has taken tentative, but welcome, steps to reform Pakistan’s seriously deficient counterterrorism architecture. In order to assess the possible rationales for the All Parties Conference’s bid to negotiate, it’s helpful to understand the myriad barriers to waging a successful campaign against the Pakistani Taliban and its anti-state associates.

As I wrote in a report for United States Institute of Peace—which was released online last week and will be launched formally next month—Pakistani concerns over threats to the state from a subset of its Islamist militants have been building for several years. Its military remains preoccupied with using jihadist proxies to achieve geopolitical aims. The ongoing policy of distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants creates the most obvious and most significant barrier to action. It muddles the narrative for the Pakistani populace, introduces gray areas for civilian authorities, and creates operational impediments because the interconnectivity of the militant milieu means pro- and anti-state militants cooperate as well as complete. Many other barriers reinforce the status quo. The following does not represent a full account of domestic barriers to countering the militant threat, but it highlights some of the most notable.

First, the perception exists that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, pressure on Pakistan, and use of drone strikes catalyzed the insurgency. Indeed, the All Parties Conference resolution blamed the “illegal and immoral drone strikes and the blowback from the action of Nato/Isaf forces in Afghanistan.” Many Pakistanis, including some in the security establishment, also believe that foreign powers (India, sometimes America, and, for good measure, Israel) are using the Pakistani Taliban. Hence, the notion that Pakistani Taliban members are sons of the soil who are reacting to the U.S. presence and have been led astray, rather than committed jihadists who want to overthrow the regime in Islamabad and institute their version of Sharia.

Second, even sincere counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts are hampered by serious capacity shortfalls, immense legal infirmities, and a paucity of interagency coordination. In other words, despite tough talk, there’s a palpable and not entirely ungrounded fear that the state is simply not up to the task of tackling the anti-state jihadist menace within its borders. That doesn’t mean Pakistan is at risk of falling to the Pakistani Taliban, but it does augur many years of violence ahead unless major reforms are undertaken.

Third, political will is lacking. Elites remain preoccupied with power and their collective interests. Many civilian politicians refrain from action for fear of inviting an even greater number of attacks against Pakistan’s heartland and, in some cases, against them personally. Some of them court various militants who can deliver votes on Election Day and parrot Islamist narratives, in search of political support or at least solace from attacks. Sharif’s PML-N and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which now heads the government of Khyber Pakhtunkwha where many militants are most active, are among the biggest offenders in this regard. Both have pushed for negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, but they are not alone in endorsing this endeavor.

The All Parties Conference resolution refrained from referring to any of the Islamist militants in Pakistan by name, instead describing them collectively as stakeholders and thus conferring a measure of legitimacy and inclusion. Not surprisingly, the Pakistani Taliban welcomed this and commenced deliberations regarding how to proceed. Also not surprisingly, its preconditions were maximalist: an end to Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. for its war in Afghanistan; amnesty for its members; the release of local and foreign militants in Pakistani jail; and the Pakistan military’s withdrawal from the Tribal Areas. The Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistan army allegedly conducted a small prisoner swap last week, though the latter denies this. In the meantime, the army is still conducting operations and the Pakistani Taliban continues launching attacks.

The TTP is only the biggest anti-state militant entity in Pakistan and it is far from homogenous. A gathering of jihadist leaders who met last week to discuss the All Parties Conference offer is illustrative of the variegated nature of the militant milieu – more than 70 different groups were represented, with the Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud presiding. It is unlikely that all of the militants currently arrayed against the state will go along or that the military will act as a punching bag for those that do not. Thus, as one astute Pakistani analyst observed, if negotiations proceed then one can expect talk-talk and fight-fight to be the order of the day.

The TTP has evolved from waging an irredentist jihad against the Pakistan military in the Tribal Areas to pursuing a revolutionary jihad intended to topple the government and pave the way for the implementation of Sharia. Its leadership is divided, but leaders like Hakimullah Mehsud show no inclination of abandoning this project. Yet it’s easy to imagine why the leadership is prepared to at least entertain negotiations nonetheless. The mere fact that Pakistan’s elected leaders have approached it to parlay raises their legitimacy. Moreover, conventional wisdom holds that any pause in fighting benefits anti-state militants, which can use it as an opportunity to regroup and consolidate their gains on the ground. So what’s driving the government?

As already mentioned, Pakistan’s counterterrorism architecture is in disrepair. First, it’s possible this is intended to buy time for the new government to devise and begin implementing necessary reforms. For example, the government has been working to augment security forces at the provincial level and indicated that it is developing a national CT strategy to be developed by the National Counter Terrorism Authority. In other words, the Pakistani state needs to regroup and is prepared to allow the Pakistani Taliban time to do so as well. Second, rifts exist within the Pakistani Taliban over whether or not to negotiate, and so making the offer could provide a means of sowing division and possibly peeling off reconciliables in advance of a future offensive. Notably, the Pakistan military, which has been averse to negotiations, did not scupper this initiative. Instead, the Chief of Army Staff has said it is understandable to “give peace a chance,” while also being clear the Army is ready to step in if, or perhaps when, talks fail. Third, this may be partly about politics, not security. The Pakistan Muslim League (N) may feel the need to try for talks as a way of insulating itself from challenges by the religious right and from Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. A more cynical explanation holds that the various civilian parties, beholden to those perceptions outlined earlier, are in search of the most expeditious way to stem jihadist violence, even if it means potentially ceding additional physical or ideological space to anti-state militants.

Whatever the rationale, and all of these may apply, it is difficult to see how a deal ends well. Past experience suggests the Pakistani Taliban, or at least significant factions within the movement, would press the advantage sooner or later. In the meantime, any additional space anti-state jihadists enjoy could benefit militants focused on Afghanistan, where the U.S. and NATO forces are preparing to draw down. Ironically, this comes at a time when the U.S. is looking to the Pakistani security establishment to assist its negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. I would argue that, troubling though this may be, the bigger concern surrounds the ramifications this initiative could have for Pakistan’s trajectory over the medium-term.

This article was originally published in War on the Rocks