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    South Asia
     Feb 7, '14

Islamabad hides behind Taliban talks
By Shams uz Zaman

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

"Dialogue" has become a buzz word in Pakistani media, with no real understanding of the process's benefits or consequences.

The are heated arguments on Pakistani TV talk over whether a military operation or negotiations are the best solution to the

Taliban insurgency. This has raised a plethora of confused ideas and apprehensions as to what lies ahead.

The debate is illustrative of the country's divide between seculars and liberals against the religious and conservatives. These divisions run deep in society.

It is easy to advocate either military action or a peace initiative in a studio, holding a cup of coffee and with a cigar between your teeth. It is an entirely different story when it comes to translating either policy into a real course of action.

Liberalism has a different meaning in Pakistan than in the West. The foundations of modern liberal thought were laid during the times of Renaissance in the 16th century. These imply a personal belief in human rights, freedom of speech and peace.

In Pakistani society, being liberal means you are a wealthy person enjoying a Western lifestyle, who has contempt for religious values, is fond of liquor, yells for military action and who applies double standards towards religion, terrorism and policy towards India.

Pakistani society as a whole is usually averse to liberalism. The country is sentimentally attached to core religious values, despite the fact that Pakistanis violate these with complete impunity.

On terrorism, Pakistani society stands divided. Everyone wants the violence to end, but they don't know the way forward. Calls for military action, which usually comes from liberal circles, are viewed with great suspicion as common citizens sees the liberals as a threat to their religious values.

A successful military operation of the magnitude of the Swat operation in 2009 would not only require immense political will, but huge financial and military resources as well.

The Swat operation not only resulted in an exodus of about 2 million people, there were thousands of civilian and military causalities and it depleted the country's military equipment and hardware.

Pakistan has still not economically recovered from the cost of that successful operation in Swat, and yet the situation there remains fragile. If a military operation of a similar size is undertaken in tribal areas, the incurring cost would be several times more, not only in terms of fatalities but also for hardware as well.

The blowback in settled areas and the overall economic cost would also be a devastating blow for the already ailing Pakistani economy.

Although the dialogue has launched, with the first formal meeting between Pakistan's government and a Taliban-nominated team held in Islamabad on Thursday, questions remain over how the talks will be structured.

Firstly, the Taliban are not a monolithic militant ideologue but rather a complex network of ideological, sectarian and criminal groups temporarily bonded together in a common cause of fighting the government forces. This raises the question of who exactly to talk to?

Secondly, despite the fact that democratic institutions have apparently strengthened, any decision on the national issues can't be taken by the government until the time armed forces overtly or covertly endorse it - and it is clear the army has no appetite for talks.

It remains unclear what the current talks aim to achieve? One possibility is that the government launched them as a last resort, because it knows it lacks the funds to conduct a major offensive. Or maybe the government wants a quick redux of talks-deal-military operation like in Swat.

A military operation this time might just involve aerial bombings and shelling with little deployments, until and unless the US or any other international donor agencies opts to provide funding for it.

Small-scale military operations are already routine, but these don't get much coverage in media. These assaults have anyway not been decisive, and it is their fallout which is being witnessed in the settled areas of Pakistan.

Other factors suggest the talks have little chance of success. One of the underlying demands of religiously motivated Taliban is imposition of the Sharia law in Pakistan. But the Taliban's Sharia involves some primordial tribal practices which actually have nothing to do with Islam, and which would fetch no support from the common masses.

Even if the Taliban agreed to dump the tribal culture from their Sharia model, the implementation of Islamic Law would under no circumstances be acceptable to any segment of the ruling elite.

The structure of a classical Islamic society pivots around the core tenets of equality and justice, and these would be seen as a direct threat to the elite's unchallenged authority. In theory, under such an arrangement all the assets, perks and privileges of the ruling class could withdrawn by the masses and any infringement of the socio-politico order dealt with by strict punitive measures.

The equality clauses would bring the elites under the scrutiny of the general public, which at anytime could demand they justify the sources of their wealth - on pain of losing their limbs.

This contradiction suggests that the talks are just a gimmick the ruling class is using to fool the masses. There are other stakeholders in shape of hostile intelligence agencies which would love to see the negotiations fail and Pakistan recoil back into an unending cycle of violence.

Talks are likely to meet some dead end either after a drone strike or a major terrorist act by any of the stake holder. And even if things go smoothly, the government would refuse to accept Sharia law.

The situation for the ruling elite could become horrific once the bulk of US troops leave Afghanistan and the flow of aid dries up for Pakistan.

If this happens, the ruling elite will either have to take a flight out of the country or join the masses back in the Stone Age.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if 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.

Shams uz Zaman holds an MPhil degree in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from NDU Islamabad. He writes frequently in Pakistani newspapers, magazines and research journals. He is co-author of the book Iran and the Bomb: Nuclear Club Busted.

(Copyright 2014 Shams uz Zaman)

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