From Terrorists to Stakeholders

Finally the ‘peace’ talks between the Govt of Pakistan and The Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are here. After months of persuasive marketing and selling the pipe dream of ‘negotiating peace’ with the much ‘misunderstood’ TTP. Imran Khan has finally got what he wanted and had been campaigning for so long. This has in-fact been his single point agenda post the general elections in Pakistan which were held in May 2013 and where his party won 35 seats in the National Assembly. His party also formed a coalition Govt at the provincial level in KPK with Jamat e Islami. But governance has hardly been his party’s focus. With Nawaz Sharif, who once harbored the dreams of being an Amir-ul-Momineen, now firmly in the saddle in Pakistan, this was the most likely way of dealing with the dark forces of TTP.

Two committees have already been set up, which will represent the two sides. But they seem to be really powerless and will most likely act as couriers between the Govt and the TTP. One of the two committees will represent the Govt and the other will represent the TTP, though no formal member of the TTP is a part of this committee. So the easier part of laying the groundwork by setting up these committees has been accomplished. The road ahead will be risky and treacherous, not for the TTP but for the Pakistan Govt. The TTP’s strategy is clear and well thought out. They have always been clear in their ideology, motives and goals and are also clear in their intent. They don’t believe in the Constitution of Pakistan and they say it without mincing words. They are in no way willing to give up arms and the use of violence to achieve their goals. Even when the two teams for the ‘negotiations’ were being set up, TTP killed 12 people in a bomb blast near GHQ in Rawalpindi. It is the Pakistani State which is suffering from indecision, dilemma and lack of a clear policy about how to deal with this menace. The TTP also treats the Pakistan Army as their enemy number one. The build up to these ‘peace talks’ has been in the offing for quite a while, but that has not stopped the acts of terror in Pakistan, some of which have been carried out by the TTP. In the first 45 days of this year, about 12 terrorist attacks have already taken place in Pakistan. In the backdrop of this non-stop violence and the TTP having stepped up the gas, the Pakistan Govt seems to be clearly on the back-foot and will go into these negotiations from a clear point of weakness.

So what have the impending ‘talks’ achieved so far and what are they likely going to achieve once they unfold ? First and the most important thing from the TTP’s perspective is that these ‘peace talks’ have given them legitimacy. It has catapulted them from the level of terrorists to the level of ‘’stakeholders’’. The Pakistan Govt has crawled where it has been asked to bend. Round one clearly goes to the TTP and they have won it hands down. The TTP has been vociferously stating that it would not accept anything short of Sharia from the talks, but that is merely for media consumption. They are a battle hardened force and know the tricks of negotiation and propaganda perfectly well. In-fact they have been one up on the Pakistani State in that. What will be of utmost importance to TTP in these ‘negotiations’ is the release of their men, especially their top arrested commanders . They will also like the Pakistan Army out of FATA. So that will be another major point of the ‘negotiations’. And when it comes to a ruthless organisation like TTP, some ransom money is never far from being part of a negotiation. So they are demanding compensation from the Pakistani Govt for the loss of life and property caused by the drone attacks. This is ransom disguised as compensation.

It will not be possible for the Pakistani political establishment to take a unilateral call, at least on the first two demands, without consulting the Army. Without taking the powerful Pakistan army on board on these two issues, no meaningful progress can be expected from the talks In case the Pakistan Army rejects these two proposals outright, the negotiations will stall and the Pakistan State will have to rethink its strategy of dealing with the monster.

There is vocal support for these ‘talks’ in the right wing Pakistani media and intelligentsia. The talks are being billed as the only solution to deal with the menace of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, especially that of TTP. So one often gets to hear the ‘’cause and effect’’ theory of relating the emergence of terrorism in Pakistan. Imran Khan, who has the biggest and the most vociferous supporter of these talks has never been able to comprehend the extent and reasons of terrorism in Pakistan and has been the most vocal proponent of relating terrorism to 9/11 and the subsequent American war in Afghanistan. Were one to believe his naïve analysis, TTP members would be counting their beads in some cave, but for the American invasion of Afghan .But now that the talks are about to begin, all that doesn’t count for much.

One can clearly sense that both Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif want to remain relevant and become the most dominant player in the political landscape of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. The party which is more dominant in Punjab gets to rule Pakistan. The results of these talks are therefore very crucial for both parties. There is a growing feeling that the business and elite class in Punjab wants peace, no matter at what price to the rest of Pakistan. The Punjab political establishment also seems to be in sync with this mindset. As things stand today and there is a growing clamor in the Pakistani policy makers and intelligentsia that the interests of Punjab and its business class have to be saved, come what may. Incidentally the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself is a big industrialist. The thinking is that by letting the TTP run its writ in the tribal areas and FATA, Punjab can be saved. The TTP has already made its presence felt in other major cities like Karachi and Peshawar. Pakistani States mollycoddling with them could encourage them to strengthen their presence in these cities and expand further. At a time when Pakistan needs serious statesmanship, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan are indulging in the worst kind of politicking which can have dangerous consequences for their country.

It is not that Pakistan is facing a serious crisis for the first time. In-fact it has been in a state of perpetual crisis. But this crisis can bring Pakistan to the brink. Not only do these talks raise a terrorist organisation like the TTP to the level of stakeholders, but they also raise the concern that the Nawaz Govt is only interested in protecting Punjab and not Pakistan. The resultant chaos that will come about with this mindset at the centre in Pakistan will leave a wide space open for the TTP to fill and it can be dangerous for the very edifice and existence of Pakistan.

Given this state of affairs, it would be in Pakistan’s best interest that these talks fail and give the Pakistani govt a much needed impetus to push for a strong military action against TTP. Not that the Pakistani Army is not strong enough to deal with these monsters –they have already displayed that in FATA in 2009 by flushing out the TTP from there, but even here it needs very clear, well defined and forceful military and political leadership to defeat the TTP. Nawaz Sharif would like to make sure that the Pakistan Army and the ISI are on his side if he wants a strong military action in case these talks fail. The Pakistan Army and the ISI have played the ‘’good Taliban bad Taliban’’ game for a long time now so that they could have their own proxies in Afghanistan. In case of a military offensive against the TTP, the Army top brass has to be decisive and sideline any TTP sympathizers in its own ranks.

The Pakistani political establishment should come out of the delusion that if they accede to the TTP demands of withdrawing Army from the FATA and give them administrative control there, the TTP would give up  killing and  violence. In fact, with their tails up, they will be emboldened to march further into the interior of Pakistan. This may not happen immediately, but at a later stage, this remains a very strong possibility. Once the US troop withdrawal starts from Afghanistan and they have easier access across the Afghan border, TTP will be more emboldened and deadlier than ever to strike elsewhere in Pakistan and most importantly Punjab will not be far from their terror.

Pakistan’s moment of reckoning has come. It cannot expect a terrorist organisation, whose raison d’être is violence, to give it up by engaging them in ‘peace talks’. A strong and decisive military action, sooner rather than later, not only against the TTP but other extremist and sectarian organisations as well, is the only way for Pakistan to come out of this existential crisis.

Tariq Jameel is an investment professional with interest in history, politics and sports.

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