Down memory lane: Peace talks have never been 'peaceful'
“The Romans never allowed a trouble spot to remain simply to avoid going to war over it, because they knew that wars don’t just go away, they are only postponed to someone else’s advantage.”
These wise words were spoken by Niccolò Machiavelli – the Italian historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist and writer based in Florence during the Renaissance.
According to historical documents, when the Jews revolted against the Roman Empire inspired by ‘religious fervour’, the Romans responded with an intensity rarely witnessed in ancient history. The campaign against the uprising reached its final stage in AD72 in the province of Judaea with the Romans advancing on Masada, the last bastion of resistance of the insurgency.
Against a fanatical band of 962 terrorists, the Romans deployed a crack army numbering 15,000. Army engineers assembled a giant ramp of earth and timber that rose hundreds of feet into the air. As the ramp became visible to the Jewish defenders, their zeal dampened and Masada’s walls began to crumble before the Roman siege engines. All but seven of the Jewish zealots committed ritual suicide.
And thus, the Romans, through this single act of overwhelming might, effectively subdued Jewish terrorist insurrection forever. A theatre of indomitable might was put on show for any and all who threatened Pax Romana (Latin for Roman Peace).
On the other hand, in contrast to the Roman response of disproportionate and overpowering force, the Pakistani government’s counter-insurgency strategy against the Taliban revolves around various attempts to placate the militants by entering into peace deals.
Shakai Peace Agreement – Fail
In April 2004, the Pakistani government concluded the Shakai Peace Agreement with Nek Muhammad Wazir, agreeing to release Taliban prisoners, pay compensation to Taliban families and provide money to the militants so that they could repay their debt to al Qaeda.
In exchange, Nek Muhammad agreed to surrender an assortment of Arabs, Chechens and Uzbek terrorists to the government. But before the ink could even dry on the treaty, Nek Muhammad went on an assassination spree of tribal elders who had helped negotiate the agreement. He also refused to honour the commitment to handover the foreign militants. Consequently, the government was forced to revoke the amnesty deal and the overall agreement fell apart by June of the same year.
Sararogha Peace Agreement – Fail
The same pattern was repeated in the Sararogha Peace Agreement, concluded with Baitullah Mehsud in February 2005. This one-sided deal stipulated that the government compensates militants for homes razed or damaged during military operations. In return, the militants were neither required to surrender weapons nor handover foreign militants. The agreement only required them to terminate attacks on Pakistani targets.
However, once the deal was in place and the militants had extracted funds from the government, the Taliban not only continued their attacks on the army units in South Waziristan, they also increased the frequency and intensity of the attacks.
Swat Agreement – Fail
The Swat Agreement in May 2008 followed almost the same ritual, where within days of signing the peace deal, the Taliban refused to surrender their arms as required by the agreement. Instead, they demanded the release of Taliban prisoners held by Pakistan and soon after, they started attacking government officials and installations. Moreover, the deal established their primacy over traditional tribal leaders in the Swat Valley.
Then, Fazlullah’s group of Taliban militants expanded their ambitions beyond the Swat Valley and pushed into neighbouring Buner and Shangla districts. Their advance towards Islamabad forced the government to launch a decisive military operation against Fazlullah and his terrorist band. The Swat agreement again proved counterproductive and merely allowed the Taliban to grow in strength during ‘peace’ times.
However, within a couple of months of the first full-fledged military operation against them, the Taliban and Maulana Fazlullah scampered from the Swat Valley, leaving his terrorist band in disarray, after which most of them were either arrested or killed.
Hence, peace deals with the Taliban have inevitably proven to be unsuccessful. The government has entered all such agreements from a position of weakness, thereby allowing the militants’ to extract significant concessions from the state without offering anything in return. Most such deals not only enhanced the stature of the militants but the financial compensation given to them further helped fund their operations. Peace deals, in effect, have inevitably resulted in further strengthening the terrorists without achieving any long-term cessation of violence.
This explains Rome’s eschewing any peace talks with insurgents and their determination to capture Masada, a fortress of questionable strategic value. The Roman Empire chose to direct disproportionate resources even against the most marginal of targets, not simply to get rid of the insignificant religious fanatics camped there but as a theatre of the awesome war machine to deter future insurgencies.
Here was an operation that stressed and established governmental legitimacy and the absolute writ of the empire at any cost.
It remains to be seen if the Pakistani state can learn something from the Romans.