Those who oppose negotiating with the Taliban, in a twisted reversal, put the onus to justify their stance on people who say talks are better than military operations. The standard has always, and should always be, that war is the option of last resort, when there is absolutely nothing else that can be done. The argument usually given to justify a military option is that we have tried talks before and these have been a conspicuous failure. This is true enough but ignores the very salient fact that we have also tried military operations before and indeed, are still employing military means on a daily basis to fight the Taliban and this has been equally fruitless in rooting out militancy. The onus, then, should be on those who favour the military option to give a good enough reason for continuing down this failed and bloody route.
There are good arguments against most of the complaints against negotiations. One, used by just about every government in the world, is that talking to terrorists gives them legitimacy. This rhetorical device is observed only in the breach. In most cases — be it Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers, Britain and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or Spain and the Basque separatists — a combination of military and diplomatic tactics have been tried even though all these countries have spewed the we-do-not-negotiate-with-terrorists line. One way to evade the problem of legitimacy would be by sending a lower-level official, perhaps even tribesmen, to represent the government in negotiations. That would signal that while we are ready to negotiate, we are not willing to condone the behaviour of the Taliban.
Indeed, in 1991, Britain continued backchannel negotiations with the IRA even after a bomb attack on 10 Downing Street nearly took out the entire British cabinet. Which brings us to the next argument: that the Taliban are so unique an evil, with such unprecedented disdain for human life that they cannot possibly be negotiated with. Leave aside the fact that the US is currently negotiating with the Afghan Taliban, which may be operationally different from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan but share the same tactics, it is ahistorical to claim that there haven’t been equally wanton terrorist groups in the past.
The military would also have a role to play in the negotiations. Even if a temporary ceasefire or withdrawal is accepted, to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, the military would be stationed nearby to remind the Taliban that this is the next alternative to negotiations.
Of course, we will never be able to get everything we want during negotiations. Intellectual honesty compels us to admit that in order to gain in the short term, we will also have to give the Taliban something. This would likely mean accepting the reality that the Taliban control significant amounts of territory in the tribal areas. Reversing this has not been possible through military operations and it certainly won’t happen through talks either.
Taking back territory requires a much longer-term solution. Primarily, it means breaking the cycle of terrorist recruitment till the Taliban are unable to draw the forces necessary to hold their territory. Studies show that between 1987 and 2004, when Israel carried out measures to raise the standard of living in Palestine, it did far more to lower the number of attacks than punitive measures which hurt the entire population. Replicating this policy in the tribal areas may be the only shot we have left. Military operations will not get the job done; relying on talks coupled with humanitarian assistance may be the only chance we have left to reduce the power of the Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2013.