The Paradox of Taliban Peace Talks

THE PARADOX OF TALIBAN PEACE TALKS

Since assuming power last year, the PML-N has shown chronic political ambiguity and ambivalence regarding the issue whether to hold talks with Taliban or take firm military action against the outfit. The PTI also has vacillated on the TTP issue. Recently, PTI chief Imran Khan divulged that his party’s and the KP government’s inability to initiate dialogue with the TTP was due to absence of authority from the Centre and a lack of power over the security services.

It seems that the growing rift between the federal and provincial governments, and also their political indecisiveness, have paved the way for the TTP to make more assaults with impunity. With the possibility of military retaliation in the air, both the TTP and the government decided to hold talks that soon hit the snags. However, a pall of confusion hangs over the future, owing in part to the haphazard nomination of TTP negotiators, which may lead to delays in the peace process.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif nominated his negotiating team comprising Irfan Siddiqui, Rustam Shah Mohmand, Rahimullah Yousafzai and Major Amir Khan (former official of ISI). Ironically, the members of this team don’t have high expectations. Mr Yousufzai and Mr Mohmand both expressed reservations. Faced with the prospect of multiple insurgent groups attacking the state’s sovereignty, the negotiators seem left in a flux, without knowledge of the government’s strategy, what to communicate, or indeed what the end result of negotiations will be. They seem more like mediators —shuttling between the two sides — than negotiators.

On the other side, in an apparent attempt to delude the government into believing the peace talks might work, the TTP nominated Imran Khan (PTI), Maulana Samiul Haq (JUI-S), Mufti Kifayatullah (JUI-F), Maulana Aziz (of Lal Masjid) and Professor Muhammad Ibrahim (JI). The disparate construction of the committee would have made it hard to solve national security problems at the negotiating table. Maulana Fazlur Rehman expressed his dismay at the nomination and also at the lack of implementing a jirga (council) system for talks. The choices reflect that the TTP is aware of rifts between the parties and is mindful of their inability to find a consensus. Moreover, none of them are actively a part of the TTP, so their ability to hold the group to its promises appears limited. No wonder, Imran Khan and Molana declined their nominations.

Besides this, another issue is how peace talks can help when the writ of the state is under attack. The TTP offer of protection for government negotiators in areas under their control only serves to show the state’s incompetence at providing security for its own people. That the government should claim victory through peace seems like a romantic illusion when it is unable to guarantee the security of its representatives. The TTP’s call for talks then appears to be more of a hoax, with both sides embroiled in a verbal tug of war.

The TTP mysteriously denied responsibility of the grenade attack in one of Peshawar’s oldest cinemas, which killed five people, and a ‘third force’ was assumed to have been involved in a bid to derail the negotiation initiative. However, the government continues to move at a snail’s pace, casting a shadow over the peace building process for which understanding the necessity of military action against terrorists is a prerequisite. Instead, it seems indifferent to the idea of revamping our national security policy and has kept mum over a military operation against the TTP.

There is also apprehension about opposition to the talks: the Ittehad-i-Millat Conference, led by the Sunni Ittehad Council and Majlis-e-Wahadat-i-Muslimeen, slammed the government’s decision to hold peace talks with the TTP and threatened a long march on Islamabad if a military operation does not begin. The conference was the consequence of carnage of pilgrims from Mastung. The assurance by Nawaz Sharif of eventual military action in Quetta has raised some concerns as to who will be the target — the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) or the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Either way, an imprudent military action in Quetta could compound the city’s current internal problems.

The recent Ittehad-i-Millat conference, led by the Sunni Ittehad Council and Majlis-e-Wahadat-i-Muslimeen, slammed the government’s decision to hold peace talks with the TTP and threatened a long march on Islamabad if a military operation does not begin.

Meanwhile, the PPP leadership is demanding that the government launch a military operation in an attempt to establish the state’s writ. As Bilawal Bhutto said, “Negotiation could be possible if Taliban first announce a ceasefire and abide by the constitution of Pakistan that guarantees the coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims.” The current, very precarious situation requires a full-fledged military operation against the Taliban, not solely to eliminate the factions of their organisations but to eradicate the deep roots of fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism.

Conventional wisdom claims that it is not always wise to take up arms to end armed conflicts; nonetheless, negotiations will only be the best way to cope with growing tensions. Even if the government seriously tries for dialogue with the TTP, what guarantee is there that the talks will be unconditional? The Taliban talks are a gamut of paradoxes; what kind of an olive branch does the TTP have to offer to the government? Similarly, what does the government have to soothe the Taliban? Will the government cease its alliance with the US or then cede its authority in North Waziristan to the TTP?

It seems reasonably clear that no conciliatory course can be — or should be — adopted when national security is challenged so significantly. Why does military action not become inevitable when citizens live in a constant state of apprehension? Most importantly, there should be an agenda and priorities set out to formulate a policy to combat terrorism. Pakistan’s lamentable political situation has continued for more than a decade while growing fear of terrorism cripples the nation. It is high time the government sought pragmatic and plausible options to maintain the country’s prestige.

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