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International relations

Pakistani Taliban cease-fire frees Islamabad to guard Belt and Road

Analysts say government aims to focus on separatists, ISIS-K after deadly attacks

Investigators gather after a bomb blast outside a Confucius Institute in Karachi in April. Pakistani authorities are under pressure to protect Chinese interests.   © Reuters

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- The indefinite extension of a cease-fire deal between Pakistan's government and the Pakistani Taliban this week has opened an opportunity for Islamabad to focus its resources on tackling threats posed by separatists targeting China's Belt and Road Initiative projects, analysts say.

In the third round of negotiations mediated and hosted by the ruling Afghan Taliban in Kabul, Pakistani military officials and the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), on Monday agreed to extend their nearly monthlong cease-fire to continue talks toward ending a 14-year Islamist insurgency in Pakistan.

Islamabad on Wednesday was also sending a group of elders from tribal districts to Kabul to use their influence over the TTP leaders, according to sources. The TTP in 2014 shifted its hideouts over the border into Afghanistan, after a sustained Pakistani crackdown.

Although Pakistan's political and military leadership is tight-lipped about the talks, fearing a backlash from liberal political parties and families of terrorism victims, Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and TTP spokesman Muhammad Khurasani issued statements in mid-May regarding ongoing discussions with Islamabad about the cease-fire and peace.

Experts say Islamabad is motivated to pursue the process because it is caught in a three-front situation, facing not only the TTP but also Baloch ethnic separatist groups targeting the BRI and ISIS-K -- the Islamic State group's regional affiliate.

"Pakistani state institutions want some respite to deal with separatist groups as well as expedite the Pak-Afghan border fencing, benefiting from the cease-fire," Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore, told Nikkei Asia. "However, in the absence of viable alternatives, this is an attempt to manage the conflict rather than resolve it."

Islamabad was also hopeful that the Afghan Taliban's takeover of Kabul last August would weaken the TTP and Baloch ethnic separatist groups by depriving the militants of their hideouts and external support mechanisms in Afghanistan. But that did not happen.

A United Nations Security Council report estimated that the TTP had up to 4,000 trained fighters along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and made up the largest group of foreign fighters based in Afghanistan.

"TTP has arguably benefited the most of all the foreign extremist groups in Afghanistan from the Taliban takeover," the report says. "It has conducted numerous attacks and operations in Pakistan."

The release of the report coincided with the start of the third round of talks between Islamabad and the TTP on May 26.

The intensity and frequency of separatist attacks against Chinese interests have also risen. Most recently, in late April, the Baloch Liberation Army, a separatist organization, killed four people including three Chinese teachers in a suicide attack near a Confucius Institute inside a university in Karachi.

Last year, a suicide bomber blew up a passenger bus, killing 13 including nine Chinese.

In March, ISIS-K carried out a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan, that left at least 63 dead and nearly 200 wounded.

A tribal elder who is involved in the talks said the cease-fire has restricted the Pakistani military and the TTP from carrying out counter-insurgency operations and attacks against each other. Still, obstacles line the road ahead.

"Islamabad cannot fulfill most of the TTP's demands, particularly releasing the terror group's top leaders from Pakistani jails, restoring the traditional semi-autonomous status of the country's tribal districts bordering Afghanistan and removing troops from there," said the elder, who requested anonymity because he has not been cleared to speak to the media.

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