The resolution of the All Parties Conference (APC) on September 9 created the hope that a dialogue process will commence soon between the federal government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main militant umbrella group in Pakistan.
This positive expectation was based on two assumptions. First, the two political parties, the PML-N and the PTI, that performed well in the May 2013 general elections, were known for their sympathetic disposition towards militancy. Therefore, it was expected that the advent of these two parties to power at the federal level and in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa will facilitate the dialogue.
Second, the PML-N federal government bent backwards in the APC to accommodate the TTP for unconditional talks, describing the TTP and other militants as ‘our people’ and ‘stakeholders’. It did not make any reference to the killings done by the TTP and its allies. The TTP could not get a more favourable offer for talks.
The federal government continues to show keenness to hold the talks but the TTP is playing its cards shrewdly and manipulating the federal government’s impatience for holding talks to its advantage.
The TTP has put forward some demands as preconditions for the talks. It has also killed two senior army officers and a soldier and asserted that it would continue to fight the army.
Under normal circumstances, the army would have gone for military action after its personnel were killed on September 15 but it showed patience. The army had earlier agreed to give space to the civilian government for holding the dialogue in view of the electoral triumph of the PML-N. It did not want to get the blame of subverting the peace efforts by an elected civilian government. However, the space available to the civilian government is not for an indefinite period. The PML-N has put too much at stake by insisting on the dialogue.
The PML-N’s problem is that it derives its main political support from political and societal circles in Punjab that have varying degrees of support and sympathy for the Taliban and other militant groups. Most of them believe that the Taliban are friends of Pakistan and that those resorting to violence against the state and society are not genuine Taliban; they are the agents of some foreign governments in the garb of the Taliban. Given the support of such a mindset, the PML-N will stretch the dialogue offer to the maximum.
The self-confidence of the TTP and its affiliates is understandable. They have demonstrated a strong capacity to resort to a violent onslaught on Pakistani state and society. They have also withstood the counterterrorism moves by Pakistani state authorities.
In the course of the general elections, April-May 2013, the TTP declared that three political parties — the PPP, the ANP and the MQM — would not be allowed to campaign for their candidates. This threat was fulfilled by the TTP to a great extent by attacking their election campaigning.
Soon after the assumption of power by the PML-N at the federal level and the PTI in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the TTP and its affiliates resorted to stepped up violence. Both governments appeared helpless in the face of the Taliban attacks. Now, the TTP is buying time in order to wait for US troops to drawdown in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The underlying assumption is that the Afghan Taliban will become strong and assertive after 2014 in Afghanistan, which will, in turn, strengthen the Pakistani Taliban. They will mutually reinforce each other for their respective agendas in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the Pakistani Taliban perceive better prospects for them in the future, they are not keen about a dialogue wherein Pakistan’s federal government will emphasise the supremacy of the Pakistani state and its Constitution.
The experience of other states facing internal strife and violence shows that such conflicts are resolved both by talks and military means. In Sri Lanka, the insurgency led by the LTTE was crushed by the military in 2009. In Nigeria, a southeastern province separated as Biafra in 1967. Three years later, the federal Nigerian forces overran the Biafra forces and brought it back into the federal fold. In East Pakistan, civil strife ended with Indian intervention, war and the surrender by the Pakistan military there. In India, the dissident movements in Punjab, Nagaland and Mizoram were initially dealt with by strong force and then political concessions were offered.
Even where an internal strife is brought to an end through dialogue, this is preceded by use of violence. As long as the state is not able to demonstrate that it has the capacity to stalemate the efforts of the challenging authority, there is little prospect of dialogue. The conflicting parties go for a political settlement when both sides come to the conclusion that it has become a no-clear-win situation for both or if one side has caused a major setback to the adversary. At this point a dialogue can be initiated to stop further bloodshed.
In Pakistan, the TTP and its affiliates are not yet convinced that they are in an unwinnable or stalemated situation. What makes them confident is that the TTP and its affiliates have developed societal roots based on religious-denominational linkages, anti-Americanism and a failure of the government and security establishment to offer a political narrative as a credible alternative to the militant discourse on what is happening in and around Pakistan. This discourse has deeply influenced the mindset in society as well as in civilian and military official circles, sapping the will to adopt a unified stand on terrorism.
Pakistan’s security and stability predicament is too complex to be resolved by the proposed talks. The Taliban do not lose much if the talks fail. The civilian government and the security establishment must build the perception that they have the determination, capability and effective strategy to assert their primacy by dialogue or military action.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2013.