After years of war talk, more and more people seem to be talking of the need for peace with the militants battling the state in the Fata region and adjoining settled districts. This is true at least of the politicians. Nawaz Sharif was only articulating this new mood when he recently urged the government to initiate a speedy process of negotiations with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). And while Rehman Malik poured cold water on the suggestion, saying that the TTP was not interested in talks, he himself on numerous previous occasions had made similar gestures. Even the Awami National Party (ANP), generally associated with a hard line policy on militancy, has been sounding soft of late. Others like the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) have been pushing for a "negotiated settlement of the militancy problem" for years now and see, with much satisfaction, in these statements, endorsement of their stance by their erstwhile detractors. Imran Khan, dubbed by his critics as Talibaan Khan, has famously claimed that everyone is now following what he has been saying all along.
For a nation caught in a war that does not seem to have an end in sight, pursuing the alternate path of engagement, domestic diplomacy and negotiations is not a bad choice. In fact, if the cost of thousands of lives and billions of rupees has not made Pakistan a stable country, this may be the only option left. However, the ‘peace option’, while a worthy cause to pursue, especially if backed by a nation-wide political consensus, needs to be seen in a realistic light. It needs to be dispassionately analysed. It must be practical, well-thought out, and, most important, should have clearly-defined goals. Mere political rhetoric, hollow idealism or electoral opportunism can cause complications as bad as the ones the country has to deal with today.
The first important test the peace option has to pass before it is put forward as national agenda for the coming years is that of ascertaining the willingness of the militants to get down to the business of negotiations. If they set-up improvised explosive devices (IED) with one hand and hold the white flag with the other hand, the process of negotiations cannot begin. What can make the militants give up terrorism as a weapon of choice in fighting the state of Pakistan is the big unknown: supposedly, and based on the literature they have produced, they want to make Pakistan a fortress of their brand of Islam. Let us assume that these claims, no matter how warped, are genuine and the militants' attacks on Pakistan's strategic assets and endless funding that they have been able to procure, are simple tactics to achieve this goal. Let us also assume that the militants are not backed by India or any other outside force. Even then, a set of initiatives has to be created to wean the militants away from their declared ambitious agenda. What is the list of incentives that peace negotiators would be carrying in their pockets to begin the process of dialogue? Preparing that list and keeping it securely away from the crass compromises like promises of blanket immunity has to be done before the table for talks is spread out.
The second test of the peace option is to ensure that there is no ambiguity in the minds of the militants or the negotiators for peace and that the state reserves the right to use force against those who continue to spread terror. Further, declaring moratorium on use of force everywhere will have to be seen against the disadvantages of aborting military operations that are in near-completion phase. Put differently, a careful balance has to be created between vital operations that cannot be abandoned and withdrawal of forces from areas that have already been cleared. Without this balance peace offers will inevitably carry the mark of the state beating a hasty retreat, sending the signal to the militants in the fray that they have won. Remember, in a battle of unequals, the weaker party carries the day by holding on, while the stronger party loses out by not making decisive headway.
The third test of the peace path has to do with the clarity of mandate with which these negotiations will begin. Finding genuine and collective militant leadership for the talks from a fragmented and atomised militancy will be a headache. Uncovering those who stand behind the TTP, remains of al-Qaeda for instance, and separating the Haqqanis and Mullah Umar from the dialogue process (presumably they are not anti-Pakistan) is a task whose successful execution would determine which way talks would go.
Attached to this test are several other factors that have to be understood to inform the current suggestions for dialogue with some sense of realism. For instance what about the fate of those who are in military and intelligence custody and are known to have committed terrible crimes like chopping off the heads of soldiers or blowing up police officials, schools and members of the FC. Or those who have been involved in carrying out attacks on core security installations at the behest of foreign powers. How does the state of Pakistan deal with these elements that have waged consistent, deliberate and intentional war against its interests? Peace and reconciliation has to be the touch-stone of any new effort at stabilizing the country, but the law of the land also has to be upheld. Releasing these prisoners and taking back charges against them will have to be done under a legal framework. This framework has to be in place before any realistic peace effort is mounted.
Most crucially, these and many other issues would remain open-ended if the military and the civilians are not on the same page of finding peace through negotiated means. The military has gone down deep on the path of force application, and like all militaries of the world, would not roll back unless the gains of the operations done are preserved. A peace pitch that does not factor in this fact would not take off the ground and would remain, at best, material for news stories. It would be interesting to see whether these intricacies become central to the debate about how best can Pakistan negotiate with the militants to restore stability. If devoid of nuances, the bid for dialogue would remain flawed. Just as use of force as a strategy to counter terrorism was never debated in any great detail before its launch, and therefore, seems to have run out of steam, peace option too can fall on stony ground if not backed by hard-nosed logic.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2013.
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