A highly polarised public debate is underway in Pakistan and abroad over the idea of pursuing a negotiated end to the ferocious jihadist insurgency that has cost the nation tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. This debate has gained momentum because both the incoming federal government, as well as the one that will emerge in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, have said that initiating a peace process with the jihadist movement is high on their list of urgent things to do. My friend Ejaz Haider a few days ago, on this page, authored, what in my opinion, is the best article on the issue.
In “Beware of negotiating with the TTP” (May 22), Ejaz brilliantly laid out the mechanics of what a negotiation between the Pakistani state and the Taliban rebel movement would look like under the current circumstances. More importantly, he made a powerful argument on why such talks would be an exercise in futility — owing to the incompatibility between the goals of the jihadists and the nature of the Pakistani state. I couldn’t agree more with him but I would like to pick up where he left off and take the discussion to the next level.
Since negotiations are likely to only make matters worse, the state has no other choice but to continue to focus on the military campaign for the foreseeable future. Towards this end, Islamabad, under the new government, will have to drastically improve its capabilities — both in financial and intelligence terms. It goes without saying that the state, without economic resources, cannot wage a successful war.
But this war will be dependent on accurate intelligence on the enemy and for a number of reasons. First, intelligence is what will allow the government to get ahead of the curve and begin to thwart future bombings by breaking up cells plotting attacks. Second, the ability to significantly limit collateral damage (an absolute must) in this fight will be dependent on the quality of intelligence. Third, accurate intelligence is what will eventually allow the state to successfully take the war to the enemy’s home turf.
As is apparent from the experiences of most other states that have dealt with militant non-state actors, it is clear that we are talking decades in terms of time scale. For Pakistan, the situation is complicated by the fact that it does not have the luxury of time. The degree to which the state has weakened is unprecedented and religious extremism within society has proliferated to dangerous levels — giving the rebels a tactical advantage.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the country is in a race against time given the pending Nato drawdown from Afghanistan by the end of next year, which will create a vacuum that will ironically allow the Pakistani Taliban rebels strategic depth in Afghanistan with which they can withstand Islamabad’s military offensive. It could even give the jihadists the geopolitical space to mount a greater offensive against the state.
Thus, contrary to the belief that there is no harm in talking to the Taliban, negotiating from a position of weakness could prove to be devastating for the country. This brings me back to the debate on negotiating with the jihadists, which is based on a false dichotomy. The choice is not between either fighting or negotiating.
All wars end in some sort of negotiated settlement or the other. However, successful negotiations can only be conducted from a position of relative strength. What gives leverage to negotiators on the table is the position of their side on the battlefield.
Any attempt by the state to negotiate with the rebels without altering the battlefield in its favour will mean that the rebels will have an advantage on the negotiating table, which they already currently do. In other words, the challenge for the incoming government is to quickly build a consensus with all national stakeholders — civil and military — towards gaining a military advantage over the jihadists, forcing the rebels to put out peace feelers as opposed to the other way around. Only then will Islamabad have a decent chance at being able to dictate terms such that the negotiation leads to a peace in which the rebels accept Pakistan as a democratic nation-state.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2013.