The U.S. won't scuttle Pakistan's peace talks with the Taliban -- so long as no one tries to make peace.
Pakistan's bid to make peace with homegrown Taliban insurgents appeared to run aground over the weekend, after a faction of the extremist group claimed to have executed 23 paramilitary soldiers. At face value, stalemated talks are a setback for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has for months assiduously pursued negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Look deeper, however, and it is clear that the suspension of peace talks is actually good news for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Still, if Sharif fails to recalibrate his negotiation strategy -- in particular, by drawing a clear line of defense around Pakistan's constitutional order -- a rare period of goodwill between Washington and Islamabad could soon come to an end.
After several rocky years, the United States and Pakistan have managed to restore a narrow basis for security cooperation and are even coordinating their tactics against the TTP. To be sure, the peace talks were hardly welcomed by Washington, which views the TTP not just as a threat to the Pakistani state, but as a potential source of international terrorism. Nonetheless, the United States has allowed the negotiations to run their course, even holding off on drone strikes so as not to be responsible for scuttling the delicate process.
Under normal circumstances, of course, high-profile dialogue between the Pakistani government and the TTP would be cause for contention with the United States, not cooperation. But in conversations in Islamabad earlier this month, well-placed Pakistani officials went out of their way to convey to me that the talks are mainly a political charade. Soon enough, those officials hinted, the TTP will show its irreconcilable colors and the public will conclude that war is the only option. At this point, the army will be unleashed in North Waziristan, the principal bastion of anti-state militancy along Pakistan's long border with Afghanistan.
Outwardly, at least, U.S. policymakers appear to have received and accepted this same line, and to date, they have made no effort to force Islamabad's hand. On Feb. 9, as hardline Taliban appointees to the peace talks conferred with insurgent leaders in North Waziristan, U.S. drones reportedly buzzed overhead without firing a shot. The last known drone strike in Pakistan took place on Dec. 25, 2013. The CIA's newfound forbearance is coupled with equally restrained rhetoric from the State Department, all in stark contrast to U.S. actions last November, when U.S. drones opportunistically targeted then-TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud and, in the process, blew up a similar nascent dialogue attempt.
This temporary convergence of U.S. and Pakistani tactics will only hold, however, if Islamabad actually follows through on its plan to mobilize political support for a military campaign. Unfortunately, Taliban negotiators have proved at least as deft at winning propaganda points as their government counterparts. They now enjoy a national pulpit for their team of negotiators -- a team that includes Maulana Abdul Aziz, the hardline cleric who launched a failed insurrection from Islamabad's Red Mosque in 2007 -- and have used the talks to buy time without putting down their arms.
The faltering of negotiations over the weekend, however, could give Islamabad the political cover it needs to reverse these losses by launching a large-scale military offensive. But at the moment, the Sharif government appears more inclined to revive the negotiations in pursuit of a cease-fire. This will test Washington's patience, a commodity that has always been less abundant in the U.S. counterterrorism community than in the diplomatic community. Those two camps have long debated the relative costs and benefits of the drone war in Pakistan, and the White House's present restraint looks like a limited test of Islamabad's intentions. One thing is clear: Extended waffling by Sharif will give U.S. officials less reason to hold off on drone strikes when Pakistan-based terrorist targets inevitably pop up on their radar screens.
The clock is also ticking in Afghanistan. As U.S. forces thin out, they will find it harder to counter TTP movements along the border and into Afghanistan during any future Pakistani operations in North Waziristan. That, in turn, will hurt the Pakistani army's ability to deliver a decisive blow to insurgents.
At the core of Islamabad's negotiating strategy lies a deadly flaw in its anti-Taliban propaganda campaign. Pakistan's top military and civilian leaders still refuse to publicly characterize the insurgents as what they are: insidious byproducts of official state support to extremist militant groups that have fought for decades in neighboring Afghanistan and India. Shirking its own responsibility, Islamabad has unconvincingly attempted to lay the blame on other doorsteps.
The blame game starts with the United States, whose drones are portrayed as the cause of (rather than a reaction to) Pakistan's terrorism problem. In an even greater stretch of the imagination, India is frequently depicted as a "foreign hand" behind the TTP. This unlikely narrative has seeped into popular culture. For instance, in Pakistan's highest grossing film of all time, the action-thriller "Waar," Indian spies team up with Taliban suicide bombers to slaughter patriotic Pakistanis. Months after its October 2013 release, the slickly produced movie still plays to sold-out audiences in upscale Pakistani cinemas.
This sort of propaganda actually plays into the TTP's hands. The insurgents and their sympathizers have easily and convincingly rejected flimsy charges of Indian sponsorship. They have also co-opted the government's anti-drone argument -- but painted Islamabad as America's enabler.
Instead of blaming phantom enemies, the Pakistani government should fess up to its past sins, stop criticizing its security partners, and present itself as the defender of Pakistan's constitutional order -- against the Taliban's inflexible vision for an Islamic state. In so doing, it would expose the insurgent group's essential irreconcilability, rally the widest possible group of allies across the political spectrum, and pave the way to decisive military action. By defining the issue in terms of the Taliban's violent rejection of core national principles, moreover, Islamabad would also set an important precedent for future dealings with Pakistan's many other militant groups.
By continuing to waffle on this issue, however, Islamabad will feed U.S. anxieties that the Sharif government is actually looking to cut a different -- and far more dangerous -- kind of deal with the Taliban, one that would sell Pakistan's constitutional order for cheap promises and temporary cease-fires. The prime minister's critics already suggest that violent extremists and sectarian groups enjoy a "live and let live" safe haven arrangement in his home province of Punjab. Others recall that in his past stint as prime minister, Sharif advocated a constitutional amendment to introduce sharia into Pakistani law.
These concerns are legitimate, and Washington should seek immediate reassurances from Islamabad to dispel them. But the real proof of Sharif's intentions will come only through the negotiations themselves. If the talks did indeed die with the 23 paramilitary soldiers, then both Islamabad and Washington should waste no time pivoting to a war footing, with U.S. forces in Afghanistan playing a supportive role from that side of the border. At stake is not merely the fragile renewal of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, but the future writ of the Pakistani state in the face of a determined and violent opposition. Unfortunately for Islamabad, the alternative to war with the TTP is not peace, but surrender.