Momentum grows for Taliban talks
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
KARACHI - Pakistan's political parties have urged the government to take immediate steps to initiate peace talks with Taliban militants in the run up to the general election, to be held within the next few months. An All Parties Conference (APC) called by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam- (JUI-F) and attended by tribal leaders in Islamabad agreed on convening a grand tribal jirga (tribal gathering) for peace negotiations with the militants. The ruling Pakistan People Party (PPP) and the main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said they would support steps to achieve peace.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has already expressed willingness to hold conditional talks with the government. The Pakistani Taliban had declared that they would hold negotiations if PML-N President Nawaz Sharif, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur
Rehman and Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) Amir Syed Munawwar Hasan acted as guarantors for the talks. It warned however that terror attacks would not end until a peace deal is finalized.
"The attacks would continue until we go into a viable agreement … it's not so that we should stop everything before the achievement of our goals," Dawn reported TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan as saying. "Military attacks and peace talks are continuing on both sides, the security forces have also not stopped attacking the Taliban despite offering an olive branch."
The political temperature is rising amid the terror threats from the Taliban as election campaigning is gradually gaining momentum. The main political parties hold pre-poll public meetings across the country, though the date of the general election, to be held after the National Assembly is dissolved on March 16, has yet to be set. Besides issues like corruption, the energy crisis, poverty and high inflation, the growing religious extremism and violence is a major issue for voters.
Public opinion in Pakistan is divided over making peace with the Taliban. Certain groups and political parties see the ongoing war on extremists as their own war, but there are still others who view the conflict as an American war.
The country's right wing parties have already warned the government against tabling a resolution in the parliament to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan, which is currently serving as the sanctuary for extremists in northwestern tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice of Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricketer-turned politician, is opposed to any type of military handling of the issue.
The Daily Times in an editorial alluded to the importance to the US of a successful peace process with the Pakistan Taliban by drawing parallels to the situation in Afghanistan. The newspaper said:
"The chorus of voices demanding the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan's (TTP's) offer of talks be taken up seems to be growing louder. Whereas Imran Khan is feeling vindicated by Nawaz Sharif's endorsement of talking to the TTP, politicians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) are pushing for a peace deal with the militants, partly or wholly because they fear violence during the election campaign.
"The TTP, in the US's analysis, represents hardline extremists who used peace agreements with Pakistan in 2011 to join hands with the Afghan Taliban and ratchet up sensational attacks against the Western forces, penetrating into the heart of the security establishment in Kabul itself. Washington recognizes the TTP's objective as overthrowing the Pakistani state and imposing its rigid interpretation of Islam on Pakistani society. This is a nightmare scenario for the Americans, since it threatens to undo their plans in Afghanistan. Given all these contradictory views on the TTP offer, it does not appear as though the peace offer will take off any time soon, and perhaps too late to ensure the elections, at least in KP, are not affected by the TTP's attacks."
PML-N, the country's main opposition party, has refused to back military action in North Waziristan that pushes the extremists to more violence and makes the country more insecure. PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif urged the government to accept the Taliban offer and take result-oriented steps.
Dawn, another leading newspaper in Pakistan, recently commented:
"What is particularly striking about Mr Sharif's statement is how it contained not a word of condemnation of the TTP's violence or its agenda. Instead, the PML-N supremo saw fit to throw in several digs at the government for its "track record" of unreliability. Since Mr Sharif has raised the issue of a track record, it would make sense to examine the track record of the Taliban themselves in both honoring previous peace agreements and in carrying out ugly and savage attacks against both state and society repeatedly.
"Which peace agreement have the Taliban ever adhered to? Have they evicted the foreign terrorists operating among them on Pakistani soil? Have they renounced ties with al-Qaeda? Have they laid down their arms and accepted the democratic system? Have they exhibited any tolerance for the basic principles of the Pakistani constitution? The answer to each of those questions is no - so perhaps the more relevant question for Mr Sharif, and others advocating peace deals with the TTP at this stage, is: who will guarantee that the TTP will abide by the terms of an acceptable peace deal, and how?"
Many politicians are facing a dilemma. Support for military operations would ultimately lead to postponement of the polls at both the national and provincial levels. Similarly, an anti-Taliban line would be perceived as support for US interests. Ironically, politicians have been labeled as liberal infidel by the Taliban, which has declared the Westminster model of democracy as unIslamic.
Civilian casualties in the US drone war in tribal areas have fueled anti-American sentiments. Hence, many political parties do not categorically support the North Waziristan operation. They also do not condemn outright the extremists for the deaths of the 40,000 innocent Pakistani citizens, including women and children, who have become the victims of terror attacks in cities and towns across the country. There is no vociferous condemnation for the thousands of police and army personnel who were attacked, beheaded and wounded in war on extremism.
Saher Baloch, the blogger, on Dawn blog wrote:
"In 2012, militants killed around 325 people from the Shia sect, shot a student Malala Yousafzai, apart from torching over a hundred schools in different areas of Pakistan. This is not all, as there are countless other incidents where shrines have been attacked, apart from the ruthless targeting of the Pakistani police … And now they want to hold talks with the government and have chosen guarantors, whose selection does not come as a surprise either.
"What is surprising, however, is the meek response of the state. For years our country has been dangling in the middle about how to properly negotiate with the Taliban. But the question that arises after what our society has gone through over the decade is: do we really need to negotiate with the Taliban? If yes, then on what basis? It would be better for the state to acknowledge once and for all that we are at war with militants and work towards eliminating the menace, rather than appeasing them."
What is crucial to peace in post-2014 Afghanistan is to re-examine the alliance of the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the run up to the Afghan war endgame before bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Ironically, the allies in war on extremism have not been on the same page. The US has its own agenda and strategic interests, while Islamabad and Kabul have their own reservations about future of the war-torn country after international security forces depart.
The ultimate beneficiary of the differences and mistrust among allies has been the Taliban, which operates on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border and will continue to be the key stakeholder in Afghanistan's stability before and after US-led forces leave in 2014.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have the same agenda to pursue, the same ideology to follow and same spiritual mentor, Mullah Omar, to obey. Along with al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremists groups, the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban are ideologically allied, while the anti-terror alliance of the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan is based on their separate interests. Afghanistan and Pakistan also frequently engage in a blame game.
Kabul has implicated Islamabad in an assassination attempt on its spy chief on December 6, 2012. Islamabad, as usual, strongly denied the charge. A blame game is likely to be set in between Kabul and Islamabad over the presence of fugitive Taliban leaders in either side of the border. The volume will increase as the Pakistan Taliban looks set to continue its struggle to establish its writ across the country and battles to regain control of its former strongholds in the country's northwest like the Swat Valley, while in Afghanistan it struggles to regain control of Kabul, and is likely to step up terrorist attacks aimed at destabilizing the future Afghan government.
The Express Tribune recently commented,
"The fact of the matter is that those who think that the militants will lay down their arms and blend in with mainstream society once the Americans leave Afghanistan or if there are talks, are sadly mistaken. The past has shown that this is unlikely to happen because the overarching aim of the militants, while fighting the Americans and Western forces in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world, is to impose their own version of Sharia [Islamic law]. This is something that those pushing for talks needs to understand and perhaps they are either being na?ve or are sympathetic to the cause of the Taliban.
"The Taliban is a force that must be defeated, not accommodated. That will only be possible if there is unity among political parties on this issue."
Syed Fazl-e-Haider ( www.syedfazlehaider.com) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan, published in May 2004. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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