By Najam Sethi
19 Dec 2014
The most gruesome and dastardly terrorist attack in the history of Pakistan earlier this week in Peshawar has had four significant consequences.
First, it has compelled Imran Khan to end his 126-day “Dharna” to topple the government of Nawaz Sharif and instead join hands with it to combat terrorism.
Second, it has compelled PM Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif to review the old “strategic” distinction between the “good Afghan Taliban” and the “bad Pakistani Taliban” and announce that all Taliban are bad and the fight has to be carried to all of them.
Third, it has compelled the national security establishment to review its foreign policy options with Afghanistan, India and America in line with the Taliban’s internal security threat instead of the old formulation of the external threat from India.
Fourth, it has swung public opinion radically against the Taliban and there are calls for ending this menace of criminals masquerading as Islamists once and for all.
Realistically speaking, though, what can we expect from our policy makers on all four issues in the near future?
Imran Khan’s angry Dharna was gearing up for the final heave-ho, or Plan D, to lock down Pakistan and force an army intervention to oust Nawaz Sharif when it was abruptly overtaken by the mass grief over the terrorist attack. But Khan says the Dharna will be revived if Nawaz Sharif reneges on his commitment to set up a proper judicial commission to ascertain the truth about electoral rigging in 2013. Two important considerations lie behind Khan’s decision: first, the realisation that the army leadership has got its hands full dealing with the threat of terrorism in the context of two unstable borders and is in no mood to engineer a change of government in the current circumstances; second, that the grief-stricken people of Pakistan are in no mood to fuel Imran’s Dharna in the midst of the tragedy in Peshawar and want to see national resolve and unity in the face of this challenge. This would suggest that Imran’s retreat is tactical rather than strategic and that he will be back on the streets next year when Nawaz Sharif’s judicial commission fails to deliver as demanded by him and when the military leadership is over the terrorist hump and back to “no-business as usual” with an uncooperative government.
PM Nawaz Sharif’s statement that there are no good Taliban is a matter of fact. But not so long ago he was unwilling to permit the army to fight the bad Taliban. In actuality, this is a matter of anti-terrorism policy that has been weak and ambivalent in the past. The distinction between good (Afghan) and bad (Pakistani) Taliban was made a matter of policy by the Musharraf regime and continued under General Kayani’s stewardship with both army chiefs playing a strategic “double game” of tactically hunting with the American hound and running with the Taliban hare. The Zardari-led parliament was also confused – it first resolved to talk to Sufi Muhammad in Swat and then swiftly ordered troops into combat. The Nawaz parliament did the same. It leaned on an APC to start talks with the TTP and then backed out when the army did a fait accompli and marched into Waziristan. Meanwhile, the much-flaunted “comprehensive anti-terrorism policy” is languishing in the interior ministry and there is not an iota of evidence to prove that the stakeholders are interested or on board. Therefore there is no assurance at all that the terrorism menace is going to be challenged institutionally by the government in the near future.
General Raheel Sharif’s trip to Kabul with evidence of Afghanistan-based TTP’s culpability in the Peshawar attack and request for assistance against the Fazlullah Group is in line with the new understanding being forged between the two countries in order to bring the Afghan civil war to an end and stabilize the Ghani regime. But the Pakistani security establishment will have to deliver the Haqqani or Mullah Omar network for sincere power-sharing peace talks with the Afghan regime if it expects Kabul to deliver Fazlullah to Pakistan. This quid pro quo has acquired a degree of urgency now. But there is no assurance that either side can quickly disinvest itself of its “Taliban assets” to the satisfaction of the other. Certainly, a truly radical shift in policy is needed in Pakistan to take advantage of the current situation.
The public’s anger against the Taliban may also not be sufficiently long-lived to provide a stable platform for policy overhaul. Already, a counter narrative about the “Indian hand” and “US responsibility” in the Peshawar massacre is beginning to take shape in the media and among radical Islamist groups. Indeed, in the backdrop of pervasive anti-West sentiment and politico-religious ideology, it will not be possible to exploit the current situation for long.
This is a historic opportunity to mount a concerted counter-terrorism strategy. Unfortunately, however, the civilian leadership is confused and incompetent while the military leadership is unwilling to break the ice unilaterally.