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Monday, June 3, 2024

GVS Exclusive: Gen (retd) Tariq Khan discusses TTP resurgence & the way forward

General (Rtd) Tariq Khan was the ex-head of Pakistan’s western command and led Pakistan’s first Strike Corps at Mangla. He has also been the Inspector General of the Frontier Corps from September 2008 to October 2010, commanded the 1st Armoured Division in Multan from 2006 to 2007, and then the 14th Infantry Division in South Waziristan till 2008. Gen Tariq Khan gained fame when he led the Frontier Corps to victory against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in the Battle of Bajaur in 2009. He has written extensively on the issue and being a Pashtun, he understands the norms and conventions of the battle in the Pashtoon heartland.

GVS invited General (Rtd) Tariq Khan, to a discussion on the resurgence of TTP in parts of Pakistan.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Were you expecting the resurgence of TTP in Pakistan?

Gen. Tariq Khan: Well, it is not a question of expectations. It is a product of poor understanding, poor planning, and poor policy. One does not expect lousy policy or bad planning; it just happens. I met people and kept telling them that this peace agreement with TTP would backfire, but nobody was impressed by my arguments at the time. I also wrote against TTP peace talks because the perception was built up about ideology and America’s war which was dragging us in a different direction and was irrelevant to the occasion.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: In one of your writings, you said that we do not need a peace deal with the TTP because we have defeated them, so we must deal with them from a position of strength. But why do you think General Bajwa and General Faiz could not understand your argument?

Gen. Tariq Khan: Well, I cannot comment upon what factors led them in the direction they took, and I would not like to comment upon that in any case. But I want to correct the perception that we won over the Taliban. No military officer can claim victory in his territory. We can create a situation for a political settlement, but nobody can claim victory. The military being employed, deployed, and used against people within its territory cannot count wins, losses, etc. It is just a law-and-order situation that needs to be corrected.

The Battle of Bajour was regarded as the breaking point in the TTP’s back, as they had previously loomed large on Pakistan’s border. The TTP had severe and violent conflicts in Bajour, Dir, and Mohmand, and they were removed from Pakistan and ran away. When they fled, the governor told them, “We got a Pakistani refugee camp,” and they took refuge in Afghanistan. We kept asking Afghans not to do that, but they did it at that time. I’m talking about 2009-2010. Then, they were helped by RAW, the CIA, and anyone who wanted to put pressure on Pakistan.

Read more: Pakistan, Afghan Taliban & TTP: What went wrong?

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What do you think about the TTP being an extension of the Afghan Taliban if you believe they were an Indian proxy?

Gen. Tariq Khan: At the inception of TTP in Waziristan, it had the same agenda as Al Qaeda and the Pakistan Army, and the state was the target. Mullah Omar then gave a fatwa against it and told the TTP to go to Afghanistan if they wished to fight against foreigners.

Then Baitullah Mehsud declared war in January 2008. It was not Pakistan that declared war. So, the TTP and the TTA are two organizations, one criminal and the other political.

The TTP is a product of criminal activity within the agencies, where they generate revenue by controlling spaces. Then the leaders started directing operations against Pakistan. This is what people do not understand. Mullah Omar had categorically said so. Regarding the allegiance between TTA and TTP, yes, they are Pushtoons who have had affiliations right from the time of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. So, therefore, TTP people have been given safe havens in the tribal areas. There is some connection, but that does not imply that TTA will support TTP against Pakistan.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What do you think about the counterargument that, when the Afghan Taliban people ran away from the American bombing and came to Pakistan, our tribals, who were not Taliban at that time, basically welcomed them because they were Pushtoons? These tribes became a part of the Afghan Taliban’s resistance against the American forces in Afghanistan; they developed a relationship with the Afghan Taliban and TTP, then ultimately grew out of that relationship.

Gen. Tariq Khan: When they came running into Pakistan, this was an affiliation from the time of the Soviet Union; it was not just because they were Pushtoon, who fought jihad against the Soviet Union, which was encouraged by the world. The Saudis and the United States had put in $3 billion each. They were moving against the Soviet Union. So, when the Afghans returned, they were welcomed with open arms in the tribal areas. When you talk about that particular time, the Pushtoons were led or directed by Nek Muhammad around 1995. He started a movement in Waziristan that slowly morphed into something else.

The Wazir tribe assisted Mullah Omar; the Masood tribe did not do that as they were only focused on Pakistan. There was a Wazir tribe and a Nazir group who Pakistan repeatedly warned not to engage in cross-border violations because that is where we would end up in conflict with the US. There was a different tribal thing, and the Masoods formulated the TTP, ultimately somewhere in 2007.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: The war against the Soviets practically ended somewhere in 1986 1987. So, when you look at 2001, it is almost 15 years later, and the generation that fought against the Soviet forces would not be there because these people in TTP and the Afghan Taliban now are much younger. How do we claim that this was an affiliation from the Soviet era? This seems to be a new phenomenon.

Gen. Tariq Khan: No, it is not a new phenomenon. What happened was that during the Soviet Union, a lot of orphans came across to Pakistan and were put in orphanages, which the Saudis financed. The orphanages gave Madrassa-style education, so the students were known as Taliban. The Taliban should not be confused with the Mujahideen. The Taliban grew up, were trained, and were put together to be hired as vigilantes by the trucking business to help them across Afghanistan. When they went along with the trucking business, they found out that they could apply their influence in Jalalabad to move around. Then they took over most of the country. That is where Afghanistan and the Taliban made their alliances. This is how it developed over a period of time. It is a long story, and we can do a separate talk.

Talking about the role of the CIA, RAW, and NDS in supporting the TTP, I would say that India and Pakistan are not friendly states and will always keep doing things against one another. That is a historical fact. Look at India’s strike record—what are they doing in Sri Lanka? What did they do with the Royal family in Nepal? What did they do in East Pakistan in 1971? India has always been carrying out terrorist activities against Pakistan, but we have not been able to tell the world about them. Modi went to Bangladesh and made a political statement out of the fact that he supported Mukti Bahini; he talked about India supporting this terrorist activity in Pakistan. Ajit Doval also talks openly about dividing Pakistan into four pieces. India also talks about how it will invade and take over Kashmir. We have never said these kinds of things about India.

Read more: Afghanistan: The “Strategic Depth” for TTP

For example, the highest-ranking intelligence officer ever captured is in our custody; he was caught in Pakistan. When I was handling battles with the Taliban, the things that we captured had Indian markings on them, and I showed them to the press.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: While we have the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, who is in Pakistani custody and is a lieutenant colonel of India, Pakistan has not been able to build a concrete and evidence-based case against the Indians.

Gen. Tariq Khan: I agree with that. Our Foreign Office needs to be stronger in this regard, and our state policy could be better. We have not been able to get our voices heard by anybody. And we keep taking it lying down. But there is no second agency in the world that is not supported by external sources. I know India was involved now that I have been dealing with it.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: We blamed NDS and the government of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. However, many TTP members were imprisoned and have now been released by the Afghan Taliban, providing them a safe haven. What do you think about this?

Gen. Tariq Khan: Some of them were imprisoned in the later stages of the American occupation of Afghanistan. I cannot blame the Afghan Taliban for releasing the TTP members because of the affiliation that I spoke about. The current minister of interior affairs, Sirajuddin Haqqani, actually wanted Pakistan to take back the TTP so that Afghanistan could get rid of the TTP because the greatest fear that the Afghan government has is that the ISKP or ISIS would take over the TTP. And they don’t want that to happen.

TTA is very interested in attempting to reach an agreement with Pakistan, but the problem is that Afghanistan is not in a position to mediate an agreement between Pakistan and TTP. These people are criminals who have done a lot of damage in Pakistan, and there is a sure way and method in which they can be brought back to Pakistan. Unless that is followed, they are not acceptable.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What other alternatives did Pakistan have when the TTA said it wanted Pakistan to take back the TTP?

Gen. Tariq Khan: So first of all, there was no compulsion. This is a self-inflicted wound that we have caused. As far as Imran Khan is concerned, I will always support him because he is a very fair leader. However, there are some points on which I’m afraid I have to disagree. One of them is that Khan called it an American war, which changed the perception and then tried to indirectly support the TTP with a skewed understanding of the situation.

The point I was trying to make at the time was that there was a way to bring the TTP in. First, the government should not have been involved in forgiving anyone because they have caused much personal damage. Families have been completely devastated, and tribes have been destroyed. My suggestion was to hold a jirga of the seven agencies, and these people should appear in front of their people, unarmed, and they should listen to each other. And that is the only requirement for the Taliban to enter. Second, they have to accept the constitution of Pakistan. Thirdly, they have got to agree to live as law-abiding citizens, and lastly, it will be understood as a surrender. There is no other negotiated settlement. So, this is what I said, and I do not see the compulsion not to do it.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Why could the leadership not understand that?

Gen. Tariq Khan: I do not know why they could not understand it, and I do not know what motivated them to do what they did. Those who did it did not argue. The DG ISI at the time was not the right choice to be sent as the corps commander. He could only maintain his ill-gotten popularity by going around Kabul drinking tea.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: The TTP were allowed to come back with weapons on the pretext that they were afraid that, since they had killed people in Pakistani tribal areas, they would come under attack. Why do you think they were allowed to go with the weapons?

Gen. Tariq Khan: It was a foolish thing to do. I know that the areas from which they went into Swat could only be from Mohmand, Dir, or Bajaur, which are well-manned. So, there had to have been some formal instruction given to allow them to come in with weapons. There is no way that they could have sneaked in.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: The sequence of events that took place after TTP’s arrival back in Pakistan: the declaration of a ceasefire, ending the ceasefire, and then declaring war against the state of Pakistan. Do you feel this sequence of events was natural or was a third force pushing them in that direction?

Gen. Tariq Khan: The ceasefire that the militants or insurgents request always comes when they are in the wrong position. At that particular time, when the Americans withdrew, and there was uncertainty in Afghanistan, it looked like the TTP would be in trouble. There were also reduced contacts with RAW, which have now been re-established. They used the ceasefire to move their families and assets back into the country wherever they could. After doing that, they decided that there was no more ceasefire, and this is what they have always been doing. It is not something new. They do not have the resources they had in the past.

Read more: KP Police say Swat under control amid reports of TTP comeback

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: If a third force wants to use them, like India, why would they not have the resources?

Gen. Tariq Khan: They would, but the kind of context and the kind of arrangement that they had in the past, with airlines, airports open, and the ring road, are not there anymore. So, I think the TTP will run out of resources in a month or so.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Looking at the two scenarios on two different ends. What is the way forward for us with TTP, and what is the TTP planning?

Gen. Tariq Khan: They demand a separate area to have their court with Sharia. They want to have the army excluded and revert FATA’s status to what it was. These are all unacceptable. It is not that Pakistan is suffering from insurgency, militancy, violence, or extremism alone; it is suffering from everything. It is suffering from an energy shortage, and its economy is collapsing. It is also suffering because it has no government, and if you have no government, anybody can come up with a rifle and shoot in the air to become a terrorist and scare the hell out of people around the place. This is what is happening. There is simply no government sitting down and deciding a policy.

We do not learn from the past. In 2008, in Balochistan, all the B areas were converted to A areas controlled by the police. In 2008, it was democratically reversed and reverted to B zones. No one talks about how we turned a certain area back into a tribal area. Then when we did the merger of FATA, which was a joke, I supported the merger of FATA and opposed the presence of FCR. FCR is not the issue; the fight in FATA was never because of FCR, and suddenly, FCR became the main thing. In 1969, when SWAT was merged with Pakistan, it had the highest literacy level in all rural areas of Pakistan at that time, and look at what has been done to Swat now.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Is the decision to integrate FATA with the KP a very wise step? Since they both have different cultures.

Gen. Tariq Khan: Well, whether it was a wise step or not, specific methods should have been followed. One of them was to hold a referendum because we keep talking about democracy, so at least the people should have been asked what they wanted, but that was not done.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: You said there is no government in Pakistan, but the government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif had a national security committee meeting. Then the Interior Minister made very strong statements. What do you want them to do?

Gen. Tariq Khan: I agreed with Interior Minister’s statement, but he retracted the statement within 48 hours.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: It is said that someone advised him to do so.

Gen. Tariq Khan: What kind of government do we have when you make such a strong statement and then say you never said it? Is this a government? There are more credible ways of doing things.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What do you suggest to them? What is the way forward?

Gen. Tariq Khan: We should use intelligence, drones, and artillery and bring them down to their knees. We can do it very easily.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Some say it is not possible now since Americans have also left Afghanistan, so we cannot freely operate.

Gen. Tariq Khan: Why can they operate here, and we cannot operate in Afghanistan? They have even been dismantling our fence.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: If the TTP has sanctuaries in Afghanistan, do we reserve the right to attack them using air strikes?

Gen. Tariq Khan: Yes, why not? They are attacking our people and disrupting the security and economy of the state. When you have such a situation, you must tell the Afghan government that if they cannot do it, we will.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What is the future of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan especially considering the matters of international recognition and women’s rights?

Gen. Tariq Khan: I favor giving them some legitimacy because we are punishing the people of Afghanistan. We need an international committee to decide how to deal with Afghanistan as a new state and how a future government will be formed since the current government is a caretaker. Unfortunately, the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is being labeled as a military defeat of a superpower. It was a political decision, but the US is now facing humiliation and wants Afghanistan to suffer the consequences of the withdrawal.