Debate over the merits of peace talks with the Taliban has been raging for months. One camp maintains that it is the only way of ending the campaign of violence, since military campaigns have not had any long-term impact. The other argues that entering into a dialogue with criminal actors gives a level of legitimacy that the Taliban don’t deserve: how can you negotiate with terrorists? In the latest development, a grouping of 30 mainstream political, religious, and civil society groupings have agreed to negotiate peace through an expanded tribal jirga formed by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F (JUI-F). There are several question marks over this plan — not least the fact that the current government has just a few weeks left in office before its five-year term comes to an end.
The group has agreed on a five-point declaration, which states: “Practical steps should be taken to end lawlessness and we support every process of negotiations resulting in the establishment of rule of law in the country.” The declaration does not use the word “terrorism”, opting instead for the more euphemistic “lawlessness.” Clearly, the tension between wanting diplomacy and not wanting to legitimise militants has not been entirely resolved. The difference between “lawlessness: and “terrorism” may seem like a minor semantic quibble, but the controversy over the latter term points to wider issues about what constitutes terrorism and how the state responds to it.
According to reports, the final choice of wording came after some tension between the JUI-F and representatives of the PPP, who insisted on using the word “terrorism”, while the JUI-F maintained that it could alienate the Taliban and other militant groups with whom they have agreed to hold negotiations. There is no doubt that there is controversy around the terminology — in short, the Taliban do not like being called terrorists. In September 2012, the US officially designated the Haqqani Network a terrorist organisation, prompting immediate condemnation from the Afghan Taliban and a suicide attack in Kabul.
Nowadays, the PPP takes a strong rhetorical stance on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups, but it was not always thus. Until very recently the party shied away from referring to these groups as “terrorists”, opting instead for the less inflammatory “banned groups.” Detractors claim this was due to the same fear that has allowed these extremist groups to occupy so much political and social space, as well as a deep-seated ambivalence towards such organisations. At a recent event in London, a representative of the High Commission of Pakistan disputed this, telling me that words such as “extremist” and “terrorist” are just fashionable terms coined by the Western media. He pointed out the inconsistency of how these terms are applied, drawing a comparison between the present day, when the US and its allies unequivocally condemn the Taliban as a terrorist organisation, and the 1980s, when it was seen as a legitimate insurgency against the Soviet occupation.
What makes someone a terrorist, and why is the use of the word so fraught? The CIA defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” Clearly, there is some space here for interpretation. While in its broadest sense, the word terrorist simply refers to the use of violence or intimidation for political ends, it implies something illegitimate, which is why militant groups from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to the Tamil Tigers, to the Taliban have denied that they fit into this category. As the age-old saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
Certainly, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent and ongoing covert drone war in Pakistan’s tribal area has drastically increased the social capital of the Taliban. In the Pashtun heartlands, many see the group primarily as one that is fighting against an occupying force. Those in these areas suffer the most from militancy and the Taliban’s brutality, but they suffer, too, from drones and foreign soldiers. The view that the Afghan Taliban is legitimately fighting a foreign invasion and defending its homeland is held across Pakistan. Even in the metropolitan areas, far removed from the fighting, people frequently express this opinion, even as they condemn the TTP, the Afghan Taliban’s Pakistani brother, for its relentless campaign against civilians on home turf. This ambivalence underlines the complexity of these definitions: objectively, what actually divides these groups? Is it the presence of an occupying force? Or merely the fact that one is further away?
The deliberate targeting of civilians is a crucial part of defining terrorism. It is difficult to see a coherent political rationale behind the wanton victimisation of innocent Shias, or attacks designed to inflict the maximum civilian casualties. The aim of this is only to spread intimidation and fear: the very definition of terrorism. The counter-argument to this would be that all acts of war, not least drone strikes, involve civilian deaths, but although this so-called collateral damage is unacceptably high, there is still a difference between this and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants.
The ambiguities and biases inherent in the term “terrorism: mean that it is easy to see why some are sceptical about its use. Western governments, in particular, are guilty of repeatedly supporting insurgencies abroad before turning on them, labelling them terrorists, and absolving themselves of responsibility for the consequences: freedom fighters until they are no longer convenient.
In Pakistan, the continued debate about the very use of the term “terrorist” in relation to a group which is clearly committing frequent acts of terrorism demonstrates a deep-seated uncertainty about how best to seek a solution. Across the world, governments have entered into talks with groups they define as terrorist; the Good Friday Agreement that brought about a ceasefire in Northern Ireland was reached after years of talks between Britain and the political representatives of the IRA. If Pakistan’s stakeholders cannot even agree on how they view the TTP and associated groups as a basic starting point for talks, it is difficult to see how anything fruitful can come out of the discussion.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2013.