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Islamabad Hands Over Top Pakistani Taliban Commanders To Afghan Mediators In Bid To Revive Peace Talks

Pakistani Taliban leaders Muslim Khan and Mehmood Khan have reportedly been transferred from a detention facility to the custody of the Afghan Taliban. (file photo)

Pakistan has handed over two top commanders of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to the Afghan Taliban, which has been mediating peace talks between the sides, as part of efforts to revive negotiations with the militant group, sources told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.

Muslim Khan and Mehmood Khan were recently transferred from a military detention facility to the custody of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt, said sources with knowledge of the matter.

The move came as a delegation of senior Pakistani military officials arrived in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on May 9 for talks with the TTP leadership, said sources with knowledge of the negotiations.

As a confidence-building measure, the TTP agreed a temporary cease-fire from May 10 to 15, according to a decree issued by the TTP leadership and seen by RFE/RL. The militant group had announced a unilateral truce from April 29 to May 9 to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan and the start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

The talks between the Pakistani delegation and the TTP are being mediated by the Afghan Taliban, which has close ideological and organizational ties with the TTP. The Afghan militant group is also a longtime ally of Islamabad, its main foreign sponsor.

The negotiations came as the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has intensified its attacks in Pakistan since a monthlong cease-fire expired and peace talks collapsed in December.

Since then, Islamabad has sent secret delegations to Afghanistan to hold talks with the TTP on reviving the expired truce and resuming talks over a negotiated end to the TTP’s 14-year insurgency in Pakistan, where thousands of people have been killed in militant attacks and clashes between the TTP and the military.

The TTP has demanded the release of 102 commanders and fighters in Pakistani prisons. Pakistan had released most of the TTP prisoners but had been reluctant to free Muslim Khan and Mehmood Khan.

The TTP has also demanded the implementation of Islamic Shar’ia law in Pakistan’s tribal belt, a demand that observers said the government would likely reject.

The two commanders will be released from the custody of the Afghan Taliban once the TTP agrees a permanent cease-fire with Islamabad, said a source with knowledge of the negotiations.

Muslim Khan was a top Pakistani TTP leader from the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan. In 2016, a Pakistani military court sentenced him to death. A former spokesman for the militants, he was convicted of killing 31 people, including civilians and security personnel.

Muslim Khan (file photo)
Muslim Khan (file photo)

In the same year, Mehmood Khan, also a TTP leader from Swat, was convicted of kidnapping two Chinese engineers for ransom and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The pair are likely to be officially pardoned by Pakistani President Arif Alvi before they are handed over to the TTP, sources said.

The Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military's media wing, did not respond to an e-mail from Radio Mashaal seeking comment. Pakistan’s Foreign Office could also not be reached.

In January, Pakistan sent a secret delegation to Afghanistan to hold talks with the TTP leadership. The delegation held several days of talks with TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud and members of the extremist group’s leadership council in Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Paktika, said sources with knowledge of the discussions.

Made up of mostly Pashtun tribal elders, the Pakistani delegation also visited Kabul, where they met senior members of the Haqqani network, a key Afghan Taliban faction. The network is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

The Taliban’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani network, has been the key facilitator for the talks between Islamabad and the TTP.

Intensifying Attacks

Efforts to revive the peace talks came as the TTP has intensified its attacks against Pakistani security forces.

Riven internally, debilitated by the death of successive leaders, and forced from its strongholds, the TTP was seen for years as a largely spent force. But the group has reemerged over the past two years, unifying squabbling factions and unleashing a wave of deadly attacks.

Pakistan recorded at least 294 militant attacks in 2021, a 56 percent increase compared to the previous year, according to the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS). Most of the attacks were attributed to the TTP.

Pakistan has not witnessed a respite in TTP attacks since the new year.

On April 14, the TTP claimed that it had killed seven Pakistani soldiers in an attack in the country’s restive North Waziristan tribal region. On March 30, at least three Pakistani soldiers and as many attackers were killed in a firefight in northwestern Pakistan, in an attack claimed by the TTP.

Pakistani soldiers taking position as they search a house during a military operation against Taliban militants in North Waziristan. (file photo)
Pakistani soldiers taking position as they search a house during a military operation against Taliban militants in North Waziristan. (file photo)

A massive Pakistani Army offensive in 2014 drove out many TTP militants from Pakistan and across the border to Afghanistan, where their leadership resides.

Islamabad has accused the Afghan Taliban of failing to expel the TTP or prevent it from using Afghan territory for carrying out attacks in Pakistan.

On April 16, Pakistan carried out unprecedented air strikes in eastern Afghanistan, killing dozens of people. Pakistan said it was targeting the TTP. The air strikes provoked unusually harsh exchanges, with the Taliban issuing threats against Islamabad, its longtime ally.

Observers said the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August has further galvanized and strengthened the TTP.

The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in August has also significantly reduced U.S. air strikes in the region, allowing the TTP to operate more freely, experts said.

TTP fighters have also obtained sophisticated weaponry, including U.S.-made firearms, which their Afghan allies seized from Afghanistan's former armed forces.