Long awaited first round of talks with the (Pakistani government and) Taliban ended on somewhat of a positive note, albeit without breaking any new ground. After persistent delays and the government and the TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella organization of several dozen terrorist groups) team playing hide and seek the very fact that the talks did take place seemed to have overawed Irfan Siddiqui, Prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s advisor heading the negotiation team who texted from the meeting describing the atmosphere as “cordial and friendly”.
The founding fathers (of Pakistan) never envisaged a situation where the state thanks to its pandering to the Islamist lobby since its creation would find itself in a cul de sac. Now that the chickens have come home to roost we are begging the barbarians at the gates to spare us.
The government side wants the talks to be held within the framework of the (Pakistan’s) constitution. On the other hand Maulana Sami ul Haq as head of the Taliban delegation and Maulana Aziz of the Lal Masjid fame on the very eve of the talks made it abundantly clear that without Shariah there can be no deal.
The pro-Taliban analysts are claiming that implementation of Shariah is no longer a demand of the Taliban. But as Sami ul Haq has claimed after the meeting that if the constitution was implemented – according to the lights of the Taliban – sharia will be automatically enforced.
Not good enough for Maulana Aziz who has threatened to quit. This novel interpretation of the constitution if however implemented will spell a death knell for future of democracy in the country.
Both committees while condemning recent (terrorist) attacks in the country have ostensibly agreed that, “there will be no action that could harm the talks.” Understandably so, the ‘T’ word is missing from the lexicon.
(Prime Minister Nawaz) Sharif in the first place carefully chose members of his negotiating team. Their worldview, as is evident from their past utterances and writings is close to that of the Taliban and far away from the pluralistic democratic society that Jinnah envisioned for Pakistan.
However Sami on the eve of the talks implied that those Taliban groups that did not agree with the strategy of talking with the government could continue with their campaign of mayhem and destruction. This is quite evident from the TTP Peshawar chief owning up to the dastardly sectarian terrorist attack on Tuesday.
If innocent citizens, especially belonging to the Shia minority, and members of the security forces are going to remain fair game even while a semblance of dialogue is in process, what is the point of talking? If such groups are outside the ambit of the TTP nominated negotiation team why not initiate talks with them rather than talking to a team that simply reports to a nine-member shura of the Taliban.
Obviously till now there is not much room for optimism that those suing for peace will make any headway. Surely the government as well as the military is aware that opening a channel with the government to talk at this stage could simply be TTP’s strategy to buy time to forestall an imminent war against them. To them, whiling away the remaining winter weeks in talks and later regroup and fight with new vigor, makes sense.
Interestingly both delegations, seeking clarifications from each other about their mandate, are not empowered enough. Not only the nine-member Taliban shura is the ultimate authority, the TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah is reportedly not completely sold out on the talks option.
However it seems that the Punjabi Taliban are keener to talk. The TTP till now has given a respite from terrorist activities in the Punjab – the heartland of the Sharifs. Even if that lasts, Punjab is not Pakistan.
Past deals because of being one-sided in favor of the Taliban invariably fell through. The last one being the 2008 Swat agreement between the provincial government and the militants.
The ongoing round of talks sounds to be more tactical than a precursor to a peace deal. On the propaganda front the Taliban are winning both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Why would they concede to a weak Pakistani government running helter skelter like a headless chicken?
The Pakistani delegation technically reports to the prime minister. However the ultimate arbiter in the matter is the military. The army chief Gen Raheel Sharif despite a scorched earth retaliatory attack against the Taliban in N Waziristan late last months has kept his cards close to his chest.
Both the sides are probably waiting for the US forces withdrawing from Afghanistan in July, when the calculus is bound to shift. Some of the Taliban holed up in badlands of Pakistan will then get busy in Afghanistan to fill up the vacuum left by the NATO forces’ exit.
However probably it could work the other way round in the post-NATO withdrawal scenario. A blowback from the Taliban in Kabul could wreak havoc on Pakistan already infested with rampant terrorism.
Postponing the inevitable, capitulation and appeasement are non-starters as policy options. This is tantamount to sinking in an abyss from where it will be difficult to salvage the nation.
The Taliban team has demanded a meeting with the prime minister and the COAS. Reciprocally however the government team should demand meeting the shura controlling the Taliban team.
Hopefully such a meeting is not on the cards for the time being. However even before contemplating such a meeting the two Sharifs – together or separately – should be on the same page.
A more focused and nuanced approach is needed. Doublespeak both by the military and the civilian leadership has hurt Pakistan. Now there is no room left for further procrastination.
The military is mandated to fight against external aggression and internal subversion. However leadership has to be provided by the civilians, unfortunately hitherto lacking.
While the charade of dialogue of the deaf continues further postponing the inevitable could lead to a bigger disaster. Use of force has its own ramifications. However postponing it where axiomatically required will spell disaster. History is replete with such examples.
The writer is the editor of Pakistan Today, a leading English language daily of Pakistan.