SPEAKING FREELY The most dangerous path to peace
By Sameera Rashid
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
In recent weeks, the upsurge in militant attacks in Pakistan has re-ignited a bitter debate on the issue of peace talks with militants. And each new violent event, either seems to push the momentum towards peace talks, or seemingly, causes the evolving process to falter.
In the wake of death of Hakeemullah Mehsud, Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) supremo, the anti-peace talks lobby - a secular, liberal
minority whose views diverge both from the right-leaning establishment and the Taliban - is advocating the utility of military option/surgical strikes, not necessarily drone attacks, to decimate the leadership of TTP and force it to end its militancy; the pro-peace lobby has vociferously condemned the drone strike that killed Mehsud, as it might scuttle embryonic peace process with the Taliban militants.
In a series of two articles, I will evaluate the arguments of both anti-peace and pro-peace negotiation camps, and discuss, if peace talks are pursued, how the negotiation strategy must be formulated by the parliamentary committee, and not overshadowed by military authorities and unelected religious clerics.
Let's first look at the arguments of liberal commentators against peace talks. It is argued that democratic regimes don't negotiate with terrorists and militants, who not only challenge the writ of the state, but also refuse to accept its territorial integrity. The argument goes, and not without reason that there is a marked difference between nationalists - be it Sindhi or Baloch - who demand autonomy within the domain of constitution, and the Taliban militants, who intend to overthrow the constitutional order in Pakistan.
Therefore, holding peace negotiations with terrorists would implicitly imply that the government is unable to stamp out militancy through force and is eager to engage in talks with them to cut down levels of violence.
Second, the Taliban have a consistent track record of reneging on terms of peace; and the perusal of the history of broken peace accords show that their only motive for agreeing to peace talks has been to get a breathing space for gathering resources and men. For instance, the past peace deals led to the release of scores of alleged terrorists who rejoined militant outfits after the militant leaders turned their backs upon the peace agreements.
Third, the statements of General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kiani, the Pakistan army chief, point out that although the military authorities have apparently given their assent to the All Parties Conference's communique on peace talks, the military authorities seek full-throttled action against the Tehrik-i-Taliban.
Earlier this year, Kiani had said in a speech that the militants have to "unconditionally submit to the state, its constitution and the rule of law. If a small faction wants to enforce its distorted ideology over the entire nation by taking up arms and for this purpose defies the constitution of Pakistan and the democratic process, and considers all forms of bloodshed justified, then does the fight against this enemy of the state constitute someone else's war?"
The army chief repeated the same words after the killing of Major General Sanaullah Niazi - the brutal attack took place after the communique on peace talks - in a suicide bomb attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: "While it is understandable to give peace a chance through a political process ... no one should have any misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms. The Army has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists."
These statements reflect that the civil and military authorities are not on the same page regarding negotiations with Taliban, which, at some stage, might complicate the issues of agenda setting and modalities of peace talks and also put strain on delicate civil-military relations.
Fourth, military and civilian authorities have divergent perceptions regarding militants: the military perceives certain Taliban groups as useful for their military strategy while political parties consider some sectarian-militant outfits as their political allies.
As a result, a distinction has been made between good and bad militants; so, a question is being pertinently raised by anti-peace talks analysts: would Salahuddin Ayubi, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and the Haqqanis, understood as friends of Pakistan because they only attack the Afghan army and the allies, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad, deemed as important strategic tools or political allies, be included in peace parleys? Well, as things stand today in military and political circles of Pakistan, it seems a difficult calculation.
Fifth, Taliban are neither waging their violent struggle for economic resources nor do they want more democratic rights; they want to carve out a territory where they can define and determine, on the one hand, society's relations with God, and, on the other hand, inter-personal relationships of people. Thus, anti-peace talks experts pose a question: could peace parleys be held with ideological bigots who portray themselves, not as principals, but as agents of God, and who are left with no moral legitimacy the moment they leave this claim?
Sixth, it is argued that a military solution must precede any political solution, as in modern history many countries have successfully battled insurgencies and Mafiosi gangs - Columbia, Peru, Sri Lanka and Italy - by exhibiting a forceful show of state power: military and law enforcement resources were combined for combat operations, insurgents' supply routes and funding channels were blocked through surveillance and intelligence networks, and legal system was strengthened to sentence the militants/gangsters.
Thus, the argument goes that unless sufficient pressure is built upon militants through a military campaign, militants will not be ready to make necessary adjustments to meet peace terms.
Seventh, militants are of different stripes, with varying agendas; some have ideological pretensions, while some smaller groups are mere criminal gangs, involved in kidnapping for ransom. But, apparently, the government and other pro-peace political parties are clueless as to who they should negotiate with. Apparently, they lack clarity about their peace partners, that is, whether the leading peace partner ought to be TTP or Jundullah or Lashkar-i-Islam.
Eighth, the trans-nationalist ideology professed by the Taliban complicates the agenda and outcomes of peace talks. For one, it is not clear whether Taliban militants are ready to disassociate themselves themselves from al-Qaeda's edicts against the Pakistani state and its institutions before engaging in talks; and, for another, the trans-national agenda of al-Qaeda and many of its affiliates in Pakistan, would not keep the agenda of talks localized and many regional power players - such as Iran and Afghanistan - as well as the United States would have to be directly and indirectly associated with the peace talks.
So, anti-peace talks analysts raise an important question: can the government hold multi-tiered talks, ranging from an individual militant outfit to a cross section of militant groups to foreign powers?
Finally, liberal analysts argue that pro-peace politicians have no idea what to offer in peace talks, and this problem is further compounded, as the Pakistan Muslim League (N) government, in the center, and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa don't perceive the issue of militancy in similar terms.
The PTI contends that suicide bombings and terrorist attacks would end once the US stops drone attacks in Pakistan and militants are brought on the table for negotiation, while the PML (N) deems that, once the process of negotiations begins and development programs are rolled out into the tribal badlands, militants would see the fallacy of fighting and lay down their arms.
These are at best simplistic notions and show ignorance over the realities on the ground. No doubt, drone strikes and economic grievances radicalize people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas, but militancy is inextricably linked with the home-grown jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan, which spews out hate speech, recruits youth for suicide bombings, provides them military training and collects donations to fund suicide mission.
People of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are only one piece of the militancy jigsaw puzzle; the rest are scattered all over Pakistan. So, by ending drone strikes and bankrolling development projects in the tribal areas, militancy levels might come down but militancy would not be uprooted from Pakistan.
The arguments against the peace process are tenable, but the pro-peace talks lobby extends some equally reasonable arguments. One, the agenda of talks enjoys popular legitimacy as pro-peace political parties were voted into power. Two, holding negotiations with militants might aid in splintering the hydra-headed TTP, as for some militants, political re-integration might overweigh the pursuit of suicidal campaigns.
No doubt, in a democratic polity, the will of people must always hold primacy, but the policy-making process, to implement that will, must be consensual, transparent and accountable.
Luckily, Pakistan has been able to put behind its tragic past when brutal dictators and their civilian proteges ruled, and when elected civilian governments were not allowed to complete their tenure. The democratic process evolved in Pakistan when politicians realized that political vendettas and pursuit of zero-sum games benefit anti-democratic forces; the understanding of this fact thwarted the attempts of anti-democratic elements to scuttle the fragile democratic process in Pakistan, and that spirit of reconciliation enabled a civilian government to complete its first term in 67 years of the country's existence.
Now, another step needs to be taken: the ruling government as well as the opposition must understand that the problems of Pakistan are not only multiple, but also complex, and can only be tackled by the formulation of nuanced policy frameworks not in the drawing rooms of politicians or at General Headquarters but through parliamentary committees.
The committees are the best mechanism for forging a consensus on intractable policy issues, where parliamentarians, reflecting the authority of people, reach across the political divide by accepting the fact that people on the other side also embody the will of the electorate.
Thus, empowering the parliamentary party to formulate peace negotiation strategy can accrue two important benefits: the process of holding peace negotiations would be accountable and the policy - making role would be centered in the hands of civilian authorities. That said, in established democracies, the armed forces remain subservient to the civilian leadership as war policy springs out of political policy.
To carry out peace negotiations in a democratic manner, the government must vest the task of peace negotiations to a parliamentary committee, consisting of members of the opposition parties and the governing party. This parliamentary committee might hold discussions with different stakeholders, including the armed forces and non-elected forces, to understand the nitty-gritty of talks.
To begin with, the parliamentary committee would need to comprehend the groupings, affiliates, ideological dispensations, recruiting areas and sources of funding of different militant groups. To put it simply, an important component of negotiation strategy formulation is to understand the party sitting on the other side of the table fully.
Then, the members of the committee must also review the military strategy to understand the successes and reverses of military campaigns, to incorporate those lessons in the negotiation strategy. After understanding all these issues, the parliamentary committee would be able to give shape to a creative negotiation strategy.
At the time of formulation of a negotiation agenda, the parliamentary committee must also hold discussions on the exit strategy, to take care of fallouts arising from the failure of peace talks with the Taliban. The exit strategy would help the democratic government in saving its face, as the repercussions of failed peace negotiations might not only prove costly for the government and other pro-peace opposition parties but might also challenge the legitimacy of the democratic process.
Having said this, the government is, unfortunately, using the network of religious clerics rather than the forum of a parliamentary committee to pursue peace talks. It is a dangerous approach and lacks transparency and accountability, characteristics of a democratic polity. Thus, in the case of a failure of the talks, if and when they are begun, conspiracy theorists would have a heyday while the democratic policy making process would suffer the most.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Sameera Rashid is a research analyst based in Lahore.