COMMENT Islamabad on a limb with Taliban talks
By Syed Fazl-e-Haider
KARACHI - If you hit us, we will hit you back. But if you talk, we will engage you. This is how the Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif apparently plans to deal with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban.
Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif and Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam on Monday decided to pursue a dual track of dialogue and action against the group.
On April 16, the TTP announced it will not extend the ceasefire they began in March, effectively ending a truce with the
government, though they also expressed a willingness to continue peace talks. The TTP said it had refused the extension because the Sharif government was ignoring their demands. Spokesman Shahidullah Shahid accused the government of arresting more than 120 militants.
The first round of talks failed in February after the TTP bombed a police bus in Karachi city and beheaded 23 Pakistani soldiers who had been held hostage since 2010.
Since this latest "ceasefire" ended, the country has witnessed a number of terrorist attacks, including a bombing on Sunday in Waziristan that killed an officer and two other security staff.
The government has also linked some of the attacks that took place during the "ceasefire" to the TTP, including a bomb at the Islamabad fruit market on April 9 that killed 24. In retaliation, the armed forces hit sanctuaries in Khyber agency of tribal region with aerial attacks, killing dozens of militants.
The TTP has actually gained what it wanted through peace dialogue with Islamabad. This was the time to regroup and re-build its operational capacity following aerial strikes and US drone attacks.
Omar Khalid Khurasani, a commander from the northern Mohmand region in the country's northwestern tribal areas threatened to resume terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Khurasani told Reuters on April 2: "There would be more attacks in which common people suffer as the government isn't sincere in peace talks."
In the past the TTP used peace agreements with Islamabad to join hands with the Afghan Taliban against foreign forces in Afghanistan.
The dual strategy will further give space to the Pakistani Taliban, who are aggressively following an expansionist agenda that aims to make their presence felt across the country.
The government is still in a state of confusion. It has adopted a reactive rather than a pro-active strategy to quell a Taliban-led insurgency in the country's northwestern tribal areas along Afghanistan border.
Pakistan's powerful military is seemingly not on the same page with the civilian government on the peace initiative. The armed forces have bombed several hideouts in North Waziristan, the headquarter of Islamic militants in the country's tribal region during the process, and also killed over 100 militants in surgical airstrikes in February following the beheadings of the soldiers.
Hopes among some Pakistanis of a larger, full-scale military operation against extremists in tribal region are fading Sharif decided to give peace another chance.
The reliance on talks ignores that the Pakistani people are angry at the continued terrorism and are mentally prepared to fight the war against them that is actually a war against radical mindset.
Over 50,000 Pakistani citizens have so far been killed in terror attacks since 9/11, according to the Costs of War report. People do not feel safe anywhere, whether in markets, mosques, churches, schools, hospitals and public places killing innocent people.
Can a sovereign state hold talks with militant groups challenging its writ and killing its citizens indiscriminately? Can a dialogue be held with those who make the signs of victory after bombing the mosques, churches, saints' shrines and religious gathering?
The militants declare Shi'ites, the minority sect of Islam as kafir (infidels). If the Taliban deems others Muslims as infidels, then what about religious minorities including Christians and Hindus? The Taliban has declared democracy as un-Islamic and considers all political parties, which are part of democratic system infidel. How a can a dialogue can be held with groups who do not believe in democratic process?
The Pakistan army has indicated that it can clear the insurgency-hit North Waziristan in a six-week period. But what would happen after that? The army will have to stay there for long. The extremists will move to Afghanistan through porous border and take refuge there.
This happened when Pakistan army had launched a military operation against Pakistani Taliban in 2009 in northwestern Swat valley. Mullah Fazlullah, current chief of the Pakistani Taliban, fled to Afghanistan and still operates from there. It is actually these perceived consequences that could force the government to rethink its military option against the Taliban.
Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US will have to be on the same page if any military operation is to succeed against al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants in the region. All these militant outfits are through ideology and religion.
The extremists are taking advantage of the "conflict of interests" of different state actors in the war on terror. Only a joint US-Pakistan-Afghanistan counter-terrorism strategy can deliver in this regard.
If the Afghan Taliban continue to have safe haven on Pakistani territory, and the Pakistani Taliban continues to be given refuge in Afghanistan - while both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban remain ideologically connected under the al- Qaeda umbrella - then one must wave goodbye to the chances of regional peace.
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(2004). He can be contacted at [email protected]