No Point in Talking
By Zahid Hussain
Terrorism is an extreme form of criminality and one doesn’t talk to criminals. But some political leaders in Pakistan are shamelessly calling on the state to surrender to the very criminals who have killed thousands of Pakistanis in suicide bombings, beheaded soldiers and bombed schools.
It is all in the hope of an elusive peace that can never be achieved by legitimising violence. While some of them are outright apologists for the Pakistani Taliban, others are pursuing a policy of appeasement born out of fear. This dangerous self-deception will have disastrous consequences for the country.
The Taliban offer for peace talks is more of a ploy to gain legitimacy and a public relations tactic than a sincere move to end violence. It has come on the back of a series of gruesome and audacious terrorist attacks, including one that killed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa senior minister Bashir Bilour. Days before the talks offer, the militants killed 13 soldiers in a spectacular attack on a security post near Lakki Marwat.
It is apparent that the Taliban want negotiations on their own terms. Not only have they refused to halt the violence, they have also set preconditions for talks. One demand calls for the release of three senior Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders who spearheaded the insurgency in Swat that killed thousands of people. For once the Interior Minister Rehman Malik was right when he dismissed the talks offer as non-serious and a joke.
It seems like a grotesque joke that the offer of talks came in a video message from Ehsanullah Ehsan, the notorious TTP spokesman who was seen sitting next to Adnan Rashid, a murderer on death row who was sprung from Bannu jail in an audacious raid by the Taliban last year.
Ehsanullah is the same man who would boast of attacking security installations on behalf of an outlawed organisation, slaughtering soldiers and killing high-profile politicians. Not long ago he had justified the attack on Malala Yousufzai, the school pupil and education activist from the town of Mingora, and the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in history, who was shot in the head and neck last year and has since been in the UK. He has vowed to target her again if she returns. Talk of peace coming from him sounds extremely bizarre.
While expressing complete distrust of the government and the military, the Taliban have had the audacity to suggest the names of three political parties who they want to sit at the negotiations as guarantors. But with whom are they going to negotiate if the two major stakeholders, the federal government and the military, are not trusted by them? How can the offer for negotiations be taken seriously in this environment of distrust?
One can understand the support for talks by the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), both long-time apologists for the militant outfits. Many of the militant fighters now active in the TTP and allied groups have come from the ranks of these two mainstream Islamic parties and it was during the rule of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Aml in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that Talibanisation started to take root in the province. Yet it did not stop the Taliban from targeting the top leadership of the JUI-F and the JI with suicide bombings.
Most inexcusable, however, is the support from Nawaz Sharif for the talks. Despite the fact that Punjab, after Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has been the main target of Taliban violence, the PML-N has maintained a policy of appeasement allowing the militants to operate freely in Punjab.
Vigorous opposition from Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League has remained a major stumbling block in the way of developing the broad national consensus needed to fight terrorism and religious extremism, which present an existentialist threat to the country. This ostrich-like attitude driven by political expediency to win over rightwing votes in the upcoming elections will cost the party and the country hugely.
There has hardly been any precedent where a state has negotiated with terrorists seeking to enforce their retrogressive worldview through brute force. The examples of Britain’s negotiation with the nationalists in Northern Ireland and the US talking to the Afghan Taliban cannot be applied in support of arguments for negotiations with the TTP. In Northern Ireland it was a struggle for sharing political power and ultimately integration with the Republic of Ireland. Under the Good Friday agreement the Irish Republican Army was decommissioned and the nationalists agreed to participate in the political process within the United Kingdom.
Similarly, it is different in the case of the United States seeking talks with the Afghan Taliban to find a political solution in Afghanistan before the occupation forces complete their withdrawal from the war-torn country. But neither are there any occupation forces in Pakistan nor is the TTP fighting for democratic rights. The violence perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban in fact threatens the democratic process in the country.
Those who are supporting negotiations with the TTP have perhaps forgotten what happened in Swat after the peace deals with the militants in 2008 and 2009. The Taliban leaders released in 2008 went back to the valley and massacred hundreds of their opponents. They used the 2009 agreement to spread violence to other areas.
That led to a massive military operation. We certainly don’t want to go through that horrible experience again.
What is most appalling is the way the terrorists are being glorified by some mainstream political parties and the media. Some journalists have become virtual messengers for the outlawed outfit and its spokesman is interviewed by TV anchorpersons. Some newspapers have unwittingly become instruments for the militant propaganda campaign by splashing their statements and pictures on the front page. This kind of publicity given to terrorists is unheard of in other countries in a similar situation.
What has also given the TTP this new-found confidence and stridency is the failure of the state to formulate a coherent policy and evolve a national narrative for effectively fighting the menace of militancy. The policy of appeasement has not worked in the past and certainly cannot deliver peace in the future.
Talking to the terrorists amounts to selling the blood of thousands of men, women and children who have fallen victim to the insane violence. Whatever gain has been achieved in the battle against the militants will be completely lost if the government concedes to the Taliban’s conditions for talks.
Zahid Hussain is an author and journalist.