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Islam and Politics ( 14 Feb 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Talks with Taliban: Confession of Pak Weakness?



By Ashok Behuria

15 February 2014

For fear of upsetting the TTP, the Nawaz Government has muted its precondition of holding talks within the limits of the Pakistani Constitution. Consequently, the TTP is seeking logical culmination of the process of Islamisation, which has gained legitimacy in Pakistan over the years

“Offers of peace by the weaker party always mean confession of weakness, and an invitation to aggression”        — Jinnah

In the last decade, starting with 2004, the Government of Pakistan has made about 10 peace overtures to various militant groups operating in the tribal borderlands of north-western Pakistan. Earlier known as Pakistani Taliban, these amorphous groups came together in December 2007 to form what is now known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, popularly known in its acronymic form as the TTP.

The latest round of negotiations underway at the moment is being touted as the last-ditch attempt by the Nawaz Sharif Government to reconcile the TTP with the Pakistani State. Media reports from Pakistan suggest that Nawaz changed his mind at the last minute on January 29, 2014, and invited the TTP yet another time for a dialogue, despite the fact that the same day the TTP had attacked paramilitary forces in Karachi, and only two days earlier, parliamentarians of his party had okayed the decision to launch an operation against the TTP!

The Unhappy Background

A brief overview of the events and circumstances which led to the present state is in order here. Earlier in September 2013, closely following the endorsement by All Party Conference to hold dialogue with the TTP, the latter carried out an IED attack on Major General Sanaullah Khan’s vehicle in Upper Dir, vitiating the atmosphere for talks. The army’s retaliation in the subsequent days to avenge Sanaullah’s death, along with the killing of TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud in a drone attack on November 1, 2013, further worsened the situation.

When the TTP chose the hardliner Fazlullah or Mullah Radio, as its leader, to succeed Hakeemullah, and there was a sudden upswing in militant attacks on the security forces, the talks looked almost impossible. With former Army chief Kayani in office till late November 2013, the Nawaz Government found it difficult to push for dialogue. Only after a change in the leadership in the army, with his own pick as the chief, Nawaz possibly found some legroom to try out yet another time if he could defuse the TTP through dialogue. As a sympathiser of the right-wing politics himself, perhaps, he wanted to exhaust all chances before giving the green signal to the army to go ahead.

How the Gamble Is Playing Out

In response to the Nawaz Government’s formation of a four-member committee to carry the process forward, the TTP was quick to announce the formation of two different groups to mediate on its behalf. It formed a nine-member TTP Shura, consisting of its underground leaders, to monitor the talks, and a three-member team of negotiators (originally five, including Imran Khan and Mufti Kifayatullah) to conduct dialogue with the Government-appointed committee.

Comprising Prof Mohammad Ibrahim of Jamaat-e-Islami, Maulana Sami ul Haq,  leader of his own faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), and Maulana Abdul Aziz, prayer leader of Lal Masjid, the TTP team has, after talks with the nine-member TTP Shura, come out with its 15-point demands, which basically rephrase TTP’s earlier demands — rule of Sharia in Pakistan, release of TTP militants, stoppage of drone attacks, pull-out of government troops and handover security to local forces, initiation of Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic education, snapping of relationship with the US, etc.

The Threat and the Bargain

Maulana Abdul Aziz, more than the other two of his colleagues, has proved the TTP right for having chosen himself as its representative. He has indicated that the government must remove its precondition of talks within the confines of the Pakistani Constitution, and has indirectly threatened the government with more suicide attacks if the demands are not met. After his return from North Waziristan, he told the media that if talks were to fail, the TTP would ready 500 female suicide bombers to unleash on security forces.

Shahidullah Shahid, spokesperson of the TTP, has even gone further in a recent interview, and stated that the TTP would be happy with Fazlullah as the head of Pakistan State and Mullah Umar as the head of the Islamic Ummah or the Amir-ul-Momineen. He has also clearly stated that the Army of Pakistan is the principal enemy of the TTP and unless the government declared ceasefire first, the TTP would continue with its attacks — which are perfectly justified because they were in a state of war. His spirited defence of TTP ideology, enthusiastic presentation of facts, and continuation of attacks by the TTP suggest that the TTP considers Nawaz’s offer of dialogue as a confession of his government’s weakness.

The TTP, by seizing the opportunity thrown at them by Nawaz, has put the government in a tight spot. For fear of upsetting the TTP, the government has of late been rather muted on its precondition of holding talks within the limits of the Pakistani Constitution. The TTP is clearly leading the show and dictating the terms of discourse while the State appears dumb and undone. In a way, the TTP is seeking logical culmination of the process of Islamisation, which has gained legitimacy in Pakistan over the years.

Predilection Of The State: Victim Of Its Own Strategy

What explains the lack of timber in the State’s approach? It is the progressive concessions the State has made to the radical elements, especially since the 1980s, when conscious decision was taken by the military establishment to promote this constituency as a deterrent vis-à-vis India and as an enabler vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

When the Frankenstein turned against its masters, the initial reaction was a sense of disbelief followed by unwillingness to acknowledge its presence. The very agencies that had quietly raised these forces over the years, grossly underestimated the ability of such groups to pose a challenge to the State. In the aftermath of 9/11 and attack on Afghanistan, when these elements came home to roost, the army was confident it could strike a bargain with them and win them over to its side by alternate use of stick and carrot.

But through a series of negotiations— starting from Shakai Peace Agreement of April 2004, Sararogha Pact of February 2005, North Waziristan Agreement of September 2006 and Swat Peace negotiations of May 2008 — the Army of Pakistan has realised that these elements are no longer under its control. They have acquired an autonomy of their own and intend to replace the army and take over the State of Pakistan.

All their efforts to turn these elements against India and Afghanistan have also not helped. Their allegations that TTP is being funded and supported by the US, Afghan and Indian agencies smack of self-delusion. This is perfectly understandable. How else could the agencies in Pakistan explain this act of somersault by elements they so indulgently nurtured over the years?

When the army finally decided to train its guns on these elements in Red Mosque or in Swat, it found how difficult it was to roll the process back. Even then, to this day, they continue to play favourites among these radical groups, not realising that they are enabling an environment where they are fast becoming insignificant actors. If Pakistan is to be raised as a fortress of Islam then, as Adnan Rashid of the TTP keeps arguing, what are these western-trained cops for, who even recruit non-believers to defend Pakistan?

The army’s tactic of using Lashkar-e-Tayyeba against the TTP or playing one TTP constituent against another may precipitate some short-term gains, but without a drastic change in its outlook and approach, it will not be able to deal with the challenge it has invented for itself. It has already reached a stage when it is unable to rally the jihadis around its anti-India policies. As Hakeemullah Mehsud, one-time recruit by the Pakistan Army to fight jehad in Kashmir reportedly stated, the Pakistani claim of organising jihad in Kashmir was a contradiction in terms because Pakistan was not an Islamic State. Therefore, he held firmly that the TTP had to work towards turning Pakistan into an Islamic State first, as per the recent revelations in the TTP monthly, Nawa i Afghan Jihad.

Dialogue, Or Turning Point?

Pakistan stands at an unwelcome turning point of history. While the talks are unlikely to succeed, unless the government tamely surrenders, paradoxically quite, the liberal and pro-military conservative opinion makers in Pakistan today find themselves on the same side of the fence advocating cancellation of dialogue and all out military action against the TTP.

For example, the conservative Nawa i Waqt, usually pro-army but soft on Nawaz, came out with an editorial on February 13, titled, Kya Hukumat Muzakraat Ki Kamyabi Ki Khatir Apna Khatma Bhi Kabul Karlegi? (Will the government accept its dissolution to make the dialogue a success?) Similarly, the liberal commentators in the English media are abuzz with myriad arguments against the ongoing dialogue. Some of them even exhort the army to play its due role to save Pakistan. Will they come together to convince the army to step in, in case the dialogue fails, resulting in sharp decline in the security situation? Or will the apologists of dialogue retrace their steps and push for army operation? Both ways, the army stands to gain. One only hopes that the apparent (Nawaz) Sharif and Sharif (Raheel) harmony does not degenerate into Sharif vs Sharif show in the days to come.

Dr Ashok Behuria is Coordinator, South Asia Centre and Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own