By Sharat Sabharwal
March 5, 2014
Despite being a country subject to and used to frequent terror attacks, the alarming upsurge in terror-related violence in January in Pakistan made people sit up. Nearly 40 personnel of the army and other security forces were killed in terror attacks between January 19 and 22, including one near the GHQ in Rawalpindi; 24 Shias were killed near Quetta by Sunni extremists on January 21. Daily killings in Karachi and attacks against polio vaccinators continue. These incidents are a reminder, if one was needed, of the enormity of Pakistan’s terror conundrum. Yet, a large section of Pakistan’s political class believes that the terror challenge can be met through dialogue.
Slow Track to Dialogue
A conditional offer of talks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the last quarter of 2012 was grabbed by political parties with significant electoral stakes in the Pashtun belt. However, there were no developments of note because of the impending elections. The TTP threatened the election rallies of all liberal parties, giving an edge to the conservative political segment. The approach of dialogue gained momentum after the May 2013 election, backed by the ruling PML-(N), Imran Khan’s PTI, the JUI (F) and the Jamaat-e-Islami. An all parties conference convened by the Nawaz Sharif government on September 9, 2013 adopted a resolution calling for an initiation of dialogue “with all stakeholders forthwith” and describing “respect for local customs and traditions, values and religious beliefs” as its guiding principle. The resolution was criticised in the liberal media for its cravenness, particularly in legitimising the TTP as a “stakeholder.” Heightened terror activity, including the killing of a major general followed, but was dismissed as being the handiwork of “foreign forces” by the votaries of dialogue.
Even as the government was trying to bring the TTP to the dialogue table, its head, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in an American drone strike on November 1, 2013. Forgetting that he had the blood of several innocent Pakistanis on his hands, the religious parties described him as a “martyr.” Though a setback, his killing did not end government efforts to engage with the TTP. Mounting expectations of military action following the spurt in violence in January were dashed when Mr. Nawaz Sharif announced on January 29 his intention to give peace “another chance” and the formation of a four-member committee to talk to the TTP.
Initial exchanges, surrounded by much uncertainty about the scope and content of dialogue, have ended abruptly because of the renewed terror activity that resulted in the killing of over 30 security personnel. The army has carried out some air raids against militant hideouts. In a press conference on February 20, the Interior Minister was very hopeful of the dialogue process getting back on track!
The army leadership has been chary of talks with the TTP in order not to give them a breather to regroup and rearm. It is also because the army has lost many officers and men fighting the TTP. However, it has shown neither the will nor the capability to wage a decisive battle against the militants in the north-west. It conducted two major operations, in SWAT and South Waziristan in 2009, both in response to grave provocations. Its activities in other parts of FATA have essentially seen militants slipping away to other areas. A sizeable number of troops remain bogged down there. The army has also stonewalled repeated U.S. demands to conduct a military operation in North Waziristan, home to a veritable melange of Pakistani and foreign militants, including the army-friendly Haqqani network. Its reluctance has stemmed from not wanting to unsettle the Haqqanis and the uncertainty of success. According to Mr. Imran Khan, the army has told the government that an operation would have less than a 40 per cent chance of success.
Mr. Nawaz Sharif’s pursuit of dialogue is first and foremost the result of his desire to avoid a terror backlash in his home province of Punjab, which has remained relatively quiet since 2010, as a result of an operation against the TTP. He also has an eye on the sizeable conservative religious segment in his support base and the growing challenge from right wing parties, notably the PTI, who seek to exploit anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.
Terror Groups and Equations
The dialogue approach is underpinned by the fallacious belief of many Pakistanis that terrorism will end when their country pulls out of the U.S. War on Terror. Its efficacy remains highly suspect for various reasons. Having repeatedly demonstrated its ability to mount high-profile terror attacks at will all over the country, the TTP seeks to dictate terms to the government. Moreover, it is very difficult to make headway with this conglomerate of at least 40 terrorist, criminal and sectarian groups. Each time some factions have shown the willingness to talk, others have sabotaged the move by staging brutal terror attacks. More importantly, the TTP’s aim is not to take Pakistan out of the War on Terror or establish its own system of governance in a limited area, but, endorsed by al-Qaeda, is to take control of the Pakistani state to use it as a base to spread its obscurantist ideology to other countries. The TTP, therefore, seeks complete surrender by the state.
Pakistan’s response to terrorism thus continues to be characterised by confusion, an absence of national consensus on a way forward, a lack of will and capacity to fight the menace and the consequent creeping surrender of the state to extremists and terrorists. Besides the TTP, which targets the Pakistani state, there are groups indulging in sectarian violence, those targeting India and others focussed on Afghanistan. Regardless of their motivation and orientation, all of them are ideologically and operationally fused. Meaningful action has not been possible against terrorists in Pakistan’s west because of the army’s reluctance to wage a conclusive battle against them, its unwillingness to target groups such as the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani network, and now the backing by a large section of the political class of dialogue. Anti-India groups in the east have not been touched because the army regards them as assets. Robust action has not been possible against the extreme Sunni groups as they have political links and have been used by the security establishment to settle scores with Baloch nationalists. If this situation persists, the result cannot but be a state of paralysis, greater instability and mounting lawlessness in the country. Growing instability apprehended in Afghanistan post-2014 will feed into this trend.
Implications for India
What does it all mean for us? India-centric terror groups have naturally been our prime focus. However, they are a part of Pakistan’s larger terror conundrum, which we can ill-afford to ignore as an immediate neighbour. The success or failure of the Pakistani state in dealing with this existential threat would impact not only its own future, but also the security and stability of our entire region. What is needed is decisive and across-the-board military/police action against militant groups. An attempt to buy peace with the anti-Pakistan groups by offering them a secure foothold in a part of the country, for Jihad outside Pakistan, will not succeed, because the prize they seek is the Pakistani state and there is the unbridgeable trust deficit between them and the army. That leaves us with the ongoing scenario of inaction and confusion. This can result only in greater instability in Pakistan, which will not leave us untouched. So, what can we do? An obvious answer is to keep our counter-terror machinery in top gear. Beyond that there are no clear-cut options.
Because of the nature of our relationship with Pakistan over the years, we have developed little positive leverage to influence Pakistan’s policy choices. However, there is now a growing and increasingly vocal section of people in Pakistan who are questioning the past policies of their country that have brought untold misery. They recognise that the use of terror against others has boomeranged on Pakistan and wish to engage with India constructively. They see the advantages of growing trade and economic links with India. Voices within this section of opinion have been questioning the wisdom of making a compromise with the Taliban. Such thinking must gain influence in Pakistan if it is to become a state at peace with itself and its neighbours. Therefore, our policy must not overlook the need to engage with this constructive segment in Pakistan, even as we contain and counter the dangers emanating from there.
Sharat Sabharwal is a Central Information Commissioner and former High Commissioner to Pakistan. The views expressed are personal.