Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif, chairing the cabinet meeting on November 4, has said that the peace dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban will continue. “If there cannot be cooperation with the process we have initiated… it should at least not be damaged.”
However, he refrained from naming or directly condemning the United States, a nuanced improvement on the fulminations of his interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Khan, who, in the November 2 presser, accused the US of sabotaging the peace process and called for a review of relations.
Just days before the November 1 strike — the US has still to officially confirm the Mehsud kill — and Khan’s presser, Sartaj Aziz, adviser on Foreign Affairs, had briefed journalists on the PM’s US visit. His report card read differently.
There are then two challenges before the government: how to pursue peace with the TTP and, more significantly, how to define relations with the US.
The drone strike on Mehsud has created a nexus between the two issues. Deeply ironic though it is, the government will have to decide on what values it assigns to the two issues.
Going by the logic of what we have seen in the past three days, it would be safe to posit that if the government assigns a higher value to the peace process, and if it thinks that the US does not want the process to move forward, then Islamabad will have to assign a lesser value to relations with the US.
This is a simple model and assumes that both issues can be treated without reference to the broad range of variables that inform them. That is not the case. Relations with the US are multi-tiered. While there is friction at some levels, there is cooperation at others. Also, given the asymmetry of power between the two, there is greater need for Pakistan to be cognisant of this fact.
Ditto for talks with the Taliban. While Khan told us that contacts had been made, neither he nor anyone else could, or can, guarantee that the kicker in and of itself will mean the success of the process. Certainly, there is no empirical evidence yet, on the basis of past agreements, that the TTP could be made to stop its bloodshed short of the state capitulating to its demands.
Khan says the TTP franchise has some 33 groups under its umbrella and not all of them take orders from the franchise headquarters. This fact I have been agitating for long without the luxury of being the interior minister.
It has implications, one being that even if it were accepted that the franchise HQ was indeed serious about negotiating, there was and is no guarantee that it could pull in groups it doesn’t control and who may not be amenable to what it might agree to with the government.
In other words, if values have to be assigned, Islamabad will have to decide whether it wants to do that on the basis of what-is or on what it wishes to have. The first is about relations with the US; the second about talks with the TTP which may or may not succeed.
Imran Khan, speaking in the National Assembly, referred to those who want a military operation in North Waziristan and asked, “What if the operation doesn’t succeed?” The same logic also governs the idea of talking to the TTP — unless Khan wants to mix his is-assumptions and wish-assumptions in the case of talking while pointing to the difference between the two in the case of an operation.
There is yet another problem: the development monies the federal and, you guessed it, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa governments use in the education and health sector, to name just two. They come from countries that are Nato members. I said countries, because, in case we forget, Nato is not just the US.
Let me put the question differently by reversing an idiom: in assigning values, should Islamabad be losing two birds in hand in search of one in the bush?
If it is accepted that US-Pakistan relations have areas of convergence and divergence, then Islamabad also has to see if the convergence part outweighs the divergence part, or the other way round.
Any review must be based on that. And if it can be determined that the strategic disadvantage of the current nature of relations is greater than any tactical advantage to be had by keeping things where they are, then things must change. Of course, it goes without saying that such a review must also include a clear understanding of what we can do ourselves to offset whatever advantage we may be foregoing in presumably downgrading relations.
Moreover, if we did decide to downgrade relations, would that automatically dissuade the US from conducting drone strikes? If not, and if we are convinced that the US, for some reason, doesn’t want us to talk to the TTP, then we have to formulate a policy to ensure that drones attacks don’t derail the process. But that can be done without downgrading relations with the US because such a policy has a standalone value.
Such a review must be based on something more than just a drone strike that took out Mehsud because the current resentment is not just over a strike. The US conducted seven strikes from July until October 30. This one took out the TTP chief and we fear that it will beget reprisals. Does fear make a good basis for negotiations?
History belies that. Fear only begets capitulation.
It is from this perspective that it is important to question a process that is clearly sans any structures and can be derailed because of a strike. The TTP mounted at least four high profile attacks after the APC resolution. Their logic: until something concrete happens, the war is on. Now, while half of Pakistan mourns the death of Saint Mehsud, the TTP spokesperson says they will not talk.
If the government wants to retain a modicum of state authority, it needs to signal to the TTP that while it is serious about negotiating, it will not accept TTP intransigence. My biggest fear since the APC was not about talking per se but that we were signalling weakness. The past few days have proved that. If the TTP is not committed to talks, why should the state be so desperate to talk? That is a question quite apart from any review of US-Pakistan relations.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2013.