By Mahendra Ved
Pakistan’s fight against domestic militancy and terrorism has come back to square one. The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, expected to order military operations, has in a surprising u turn, formed a committee instead to hold talks with the militants.
As the process of talks begins on Feb 4, speculation had been fuelled by a series of audacious terror attacks on the government establishments and the unarmed populace – all acknowledged by Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organization of some of the 60 banned militant groups.
Government ministers had made public statements through the third week of January asserting that following these attacks the ‘mood’ in the government and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) had “changed” and that “a national consensus” favoured the use of force.
Sharif gave “a go-ahead for the use of force” at a high level meeting Jan 24, which was attended by ministers and top civil and military officials, Dawn reported. On Jan 27, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid, who is also spokesman for the prime minister, talking to media reporters, asked: “How come we allow such forces of extremism who want to impose not their ideology but also their lifestyle on us?”
Reflecting the party’s mood after a meeting with the prime minister the same day, senior leader Zulfikar Khosa said that “an overwhelming majority supported the use of force against the TTP”.
Another minister, not named, reflected the concern of the world community. “It’s not only the party legislators but every country that the prime minister has visited has raised the issue of security and militancy in Pakistan. No major investor is willing to come to Pakistan in the current circumstances.”
He rejected a perception that the PML-N had never considered any option other than talks. “Some senior members of the government were hopeful of a breakthrough with the TTP which is why the government pursued negotiations, but not everyone agreed.”
The stage was being set for a military operation for which the prime minister had a much-publicised meeting with the Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif. Although militancy and the security situation were discussed, there was no indication whether the operation plan against the militants was discussed or whether the military was being asked to hold back action, despite grave provocations in the form of attacks on their establishments.
In a surprise announcement, the committee includes two senior journalists, Irfan Siddiqui and Rahimullah Yusufzai, besides Major Akram, a former hand of the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former ambassador to Afghanistan specializing in Afghanistan and Central Asian affairs.
While the four are senior hands with knowledge of Afghan developments, none of them is known to be a specialist on internal militancy.
All committee members come from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and of them at least Mohmand is a member of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), the party which is a staunch supporter of peace talks with Taliban. PTI heads KP’s coalition government in which other partners are all Islamists who want talks and are opposed to any use of force against the militants.
Not surprisingly, media commentators have said that this is Nawaz Sharif’s concession to, or an understanding with, cricketer-turned-politician and PTI chief Imran Khan.
The TTP has always placed seemingly impossible demands on the government like withdrawing security forces from tribal areas and stopping drone attacks by the USA, while rejecting the government’s call to cease violence and indeed continuing with it.
This time, while ready to talk – a move that many think is meant to buy time, going by past experience – the TTP ‘nominated’ as its representatives Imran Khan and Maulana Samiul Haq, the “father” of the Taliban movement whom Nawaz Sharif had tasked last year to facilitate the talks. Khan, however, distanced himself from any such role.
One reasoning for the government’s u turn in favour of holding talks is that Sharif wants to give a long rope to the militants and their supporters within the political class before finally using force if the talks fail.
Appearing before the National Assembly after absenting himself for six months, the prime minister said this was “the last chance” for negotiations and insisted that this would not be indefinite. He did not indicate a time frame, though.
In his editorial in the weekly Friday Times (Jan 31), Najam Sethi, however, said that the prime minister’s meeting with the KP Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak a day earlier “may have prompted a change of heart. The PTI remained the last hurdle in cobbling an all parties consensus in favour of war. Therefore the nomination of three religio-political mediators from KP, including PTI’s Rustam Shah (a fierce opponent of any military action against the TTP) suggests that the PM is covering his flanks before launching military action. The reasoning is that when, not if, the Committee fails to persuade the TTP to cease fire, the KPK-PTI will have no option but to fall in line with the war consensus.”
On the other hand, Nzawz Sharif has had to consider “some hard and fearful realities on the ground. Topmost is an expected TTP backlash in the PM’s home province of Punjab that has so far been largely untouched by the TTP’s retribution policies”.
“Punjab remains the base of all sectarian and jihadi organizations in the country. These were originally nurtured by the military establishment but have become independent or autonomous in recent years and struck out on their own with links to Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban,” Sethi wrote.
Imran Khan, “the spoke in the wheel”, Sethi notes, has changed his stance visibly in the aftermath of TTP attacks on the army. “He is now making a distinction between “good” Taliban (those who are amenable to peace talks) and “bad” Taliban (who are carrying out the attacks).
Dawn newspaper in its editorial noted that the prime minister had failed his own party lawmakers. “Not only was the general thrust of the PML-N parliamentarians’ advice ignored, they were clearly not even informed of their own leadership’s plans to try and reinvigorate the dialogue option.”
“If the decision itself was a complete surprise, less surprising were the details: there were none. No deadlines, no red lines, no clarity about who will be reached out to, no specifics about the mandate of the four-member committee — virtually nothing other than the old platitudes about sincere efforts and genuine intentions on the part of the government.”
Reflective of the government’s ambivalence, the man who will ‘assist’ the committee, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has described both courses as difficult options at a “defining moment” in Pakistan’s history.
A media report said: “Chaudhry Nisar seemed seeking to keep both the advocates of dialogue — mandated by a Sep 9 all-party conference — and of military operation happy as he said he personally favoured dialogue with the Taliban “even today” but wondered what could be done if “the other side refuses dialogue”.
The army acts only in retaliation, but cannot go for all-out action. The political support it is seeking is constantly wavering. The Islamist parties remain firmly opposed to any use of force. As a result, Sharif favours action while talking to the military, he talks of talks with the political class.
Commentator Zahid Husain sums up Pakistan’s current situation: “It began with the politicians, most of whom kept silent when the Taliban targeted their rivals during the election campaign. They didn’t speak out when our soldiers were being beheaded. They looked the other way when the extremists massacred Shias and other religious minorities. Instead, they appeased the murderers. Now the same terrorists are coming for them too. No one will be spared; the message is loud and clear. The line is drawn: either you are with us or against us.”
(Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer and columnist. He can be reached at [email protected])