Pakistan’s Peace Talks with the Pakistani Taliban: Insights from an Interview with Abdul Wali Mohmand (alias Umar Khalid Khurasani) — Jamestown

Umar Khalid Khurasani (center) (Source: Arab News)

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) (“Pakistani Taliban”) spokesman, Muhammad Khurasani, announced a one-month ceasefire and peace negotiations with the Pakistani state on November 8 (Umar Media, November 9). One day later, the TTP emir, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud ordered the group’s fighters, commanders, and shadow governors through a written statement to strictly follow the ceasefire during this negotiation period and halt all attacks in Pakistan (Twitter.com/@Abdsayedd). The TTP was formed in the aftermath of the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and claims to be a regional extension of the Afghan Taliban. It also expresses adherence to the global jihadist agenda of al-Qaeda. With this in mind, these negotiations represent one of the most significant regional developments since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August.

The TTP’s Persistent Pursuit of Sharia

Hours before Khurasani announced the ceasefire, Pakistan’s Information Minister, Chaudhary Fawad Hussain, acknowledged the negotiations in a public statement. He confirmed that the Pakistani government was entering into direct talks with the TTP (Geo Tv, November 8). In his own interview, Khurasani had noted that these negotiations were occurring at the Pakistani government’s request and would be mediated by the Afghan Taliban and continue for one month. He also added that both sides would respect a complete ceasefire during this period and that the TTP has always preferred peace and development in Pakistan. The TTP made it clear that they were ready for any negotiations that could ensure that sharia is implemented in the country.

Two months prior to this ceasefire and negotiation, in September, Khurasani had rejected the Pakistani president and foreign minister’s amnesty offers, which were conditioned on the TTP disarmament and recognition of the Pakistani Constitution (Umar Media, September 17). He claimed that the TTP does not regret its war against the Pakistani state and, therefore, would never accept any amnesty or lay down arms. However, Khurasani left open the possibility for dialogue by confirming that the group is always ready for negotiations that can lead to the realization of sharia implementation in Pakistan.

The TTP’s demand for sharia excludes any political settlement with the Pakistani government because such a demand means replacing the current democratic system with a Taliban-interpreted strict Islamic system. Pakistani experts are aware of the TTP’s internal dynamics, but remain hopeful that the TTP will reconsider this demand and that the demand is only for the sake of political bargaining [1].

Past Spoilers No Longer Present

The former Afghan government and U.S. forces believed that any TTP peace deal in Pakistan would lead to an immediate increase in jihadist violence. Their objection to such a peace deal was logical because the TTP had a founding role in the post-9/11 Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. [2] The TTP’s role in the jihadist violence in Afghanistan was only minimized when its insurgency in Pakistan intensified around 2010. Thus, a TTP peace settlement in Pakistan would, according to this logic, increase the jihadist attacks against the U.S.-allied forces and the Afghan government. After the Taliban takeover in August, Pakistan did not face this pressure. Therefore, the Pakistani state quickly offered negotiations and amnesty to the TTP, which led to the recent negotiations.

The second factor in past negotiations’ failure was opposition from hardliners within the TTP. The main hardliner was the TTP co-founder and powerful commander, Abdul Wali Mohmand, who goes by the alias Umar Khalid Khurasani (Militant Leadership Monitor, May). He was behind the sabotaging of the TTP negotiations with the Pakistani state in 2013–2014 after the negotiations had been making progress in several rounds. His view was that the Pakistani government could never accept the TTP’s demands for sharia implementation through a political settlement. He claimed that even if the government implemented sharia, it would still not end the TTP’s armed struggle, which was not limited to Pakistan alone (Umar Media, 2012).

Moreover, Khurasani covertly carried out an intense series of horrific terrorist attacks in Pakistan during the TTP’s negotiations with the government in 2014, which were claimed by a proxy group, Ahrar-ul-Hind (Geo Tv, March 14, 2014). This rendered hopeless the idea that any truce with TTP would return peace to Pakistan. The negotiations finally failed after a one-month ceasefire, announced on March 1, 2014, came to an end (Dawn, March 1, 2014). The Pakistani military then carried out a large-scale operation against the militants in Waziristan in July 2014, which resulted in the TTP relocating to Afghanistan (The News, June 20, 2016).

As a result of his differences with the TTP senior leadership, Khurasani left the TTP in August 2014 with several commanders and established his own faction of the TTP, known as TTP Jumat ul Aharar (JuA) (Ihya-e-Khelafat Media, August 2014). However, he merged back with the TTP last year (The Express Tribune, August 19, 2020). Khurasani’s mixed background is important to understanding his stance on the TTP’s present negations with the Pakistani government.

Umar Khalid Khurasani’s Current Position on Peace Talks

This author conducted a remote interview through local sources with Khurasani about these negotiations in mid-November. [3] His responses assist in understanding his position on the current negotiations, the Afghan Taliban’s role in them, and the TTP’s next steps in case the negotiations fail.

Interestingly, Khurasani did not employ global jihadist narratives in his comments, which was unlike his rhetoric in 2013. At that time, he stated that the TTP’s armed struggle is not limited to Pakistan and will continue even if the TTP achieves its goals in Pakistan. His own ideological change follows a similar change in the TTP’s own policies, which now strictly emphasize that war should be limited to Pakistan and have no regional or global agenda (Umar Media, August 13). The TTP fears that the Pakistani state can exploit their regional or global agenda for Pakistan’s own interests in combating the TTP, just as the TTP’s previous open links with al-Qaeda resulted in it facing an intense U.S. counter-terrorism campaign in Waziristan, Pakistan.

Secondly, Khurasani explicitly declared his support for negotiations, but remained skeptical about their chances for success. For example, he doubts the Pakistani state’s sincerity in negotiations. Khurasani said, “I support conditional negotiations like the other TTP leadership and our negotiations team. So, these negotiations can only proceed further once our demands are fulfilled.” Although he did not directly mention “these demands,” both sides claim that the TTP’s primary demand for continuing these negotiations is the release of its members from government prisons. [4] The TTP, for example, handed an initial list of 102 members to the Pakistani government, but the TTP maintains that they have not yet been released, and warns that further delays in their release will risk undermining the peace opportunity for Pakistan.

Khurasani further denied all rumors of the Afghan Taliban placing pressure on the TTP during these negotiations. He stated that the TTP considers the Afghan Taliban its leaders and would never expect the Afghan Taliban to force the TTP to do anything harmful to itself. This confirms the TTP’s cordial relations with the Afghan Taliban and the latter’s role in a potential political settlement between the TTP and Pakistan.

The Afghan Taliban’s Difficulties and Divisions over the Negotiations

The Afghan Taliban leadership remains divided on the TTP’s negotiations with Pakistan. Its spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, declared that the TTP was an internal, Pakistani issue and claimed ignorance of his government’s role in these negotiations (Twitter.com/@Abdsayedd). On the other hand, the Afghan Taliban foreign minister, Ameer Khan Mutaqi, stated in Islamabad on November 11 that his government is facilitating the peace negotiations between Pakistan and the TTP (Geo News, 12 Nov). This raises questions about whether the “pro-Pakistan lobby” in the Afghan Taliban supports the TTP’s deal with Pakistan, given that some in the Afghan Taliban remain unaware of this peace process.

According to Khurasani, if negotiations with Pakistan fail, the TTP leadership council and commanders will decide their future strategy. He estimated that this strategy would be war against the Pakistani state. Any such war would present difficulties for the Afghan Taliban, which had promised in last year’s Doha agreement with the United States that it would not allow any person or group to use its soil to attack foreign states, including Afghanistan’s neighbors.

The TTP’s deep roots with the Afghan Taliban make it unlikely the Afghan Taliban would ever conduct military actions against the TTP to restrain it. In addition, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) challenge in Afghanistan limits the Afghan Taliban’s ability to conduct coercive actions against the TTP because it could open the possibility of a TTP alliance with ISKP against the Taliban or large defections from the Afghan Taliban into the TTP or ISKP ranks. As a result, the Afghan Taliban may have little ability to affect the course of negotiations between the TTP and Pakistan.

Notes:

[1] Author’s discussion with senior Pakistani journalists, security officials, and sources closed to Pakistani militants, remotely conducted during November 2021.

[2] Syed Salim Shahzad, Inside al-Qaeda and Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, (Pluto Press: London, UK, 2011),

[3] The author sent written questions to a source close to Umar Khalid Khurasani through a local journalist to which Khurasani responded through voice messages. The TTP spokesman and senior Pakistani journalists who have known Khurasani over the years have confirmed the authenticity of his claims.

[4] TTP claims sharia implementation is its primary demand, but a prisoner release is needed to continue the peace talks. The TTP asserts that if the government does not release its prisoners, it will not be able to implement sharia in the country.

Originally published at https://jamestown.org.

Researcher: Af-Pak and South Asia´s Security and Politics; (Sunni Jihad: AQ, AQIS, ISKP, Taliban/Jihadi groups) (MSc: Pol.Sci) (BSc: Peace & Development; IR)