Dateline Islamabad

Pakistan and TTP: Dialogue or Military Action?

17 Feb, 2014    ·   4312

Salma Malik asserts that the time for alternate options is closing in and the government has very tough decisions to make

The verdict is out: instead of supporting decisive military action to break the back of insurgents, the government chose to dialogue, with umpteenth committees to name, shame, blame and footdrag. Interestingly, where the dialogue option has halted government military action as a confidence-building and reconciliatory measure, not only are the Taliban carrying out their signature strikes (such as the latest at a cinema house in Peshawar and a direct attack against security forces) but are already picking on soft targets such as the peaceful Ismailia (Shia) population in Gilgit Baltistan area to convert or scare them into vacating their homeland. This is also being attempted against the harmless Kailash tribes, as are targeted strikes against government empathisers and Aman (peace) Jirga members, to further their reign of terror and convey the message that they are still in control.

What will be the implication of these talks? Will the talks be successful? Will they usher peace? Or will negotiating with the insurgents lead to the popularly dreaded Taliban interpreted Shariah? Some feel that it is the Taliban and not the government who are at a weaker wicket, and with time the former stands to lose more than gain. This is because such violent movements are inherently self-annihilating in nature, and usually, factionalism, power struggle, and their getting too big for their size will cause their eventual downfall. However, there is little comfort in this theory, as not only will such a scenario entail heavy collateral damages, but would end up substantially destroying critical infrastructure and distort the socio-political fabric before it ceases.

So what do the talks hold, and what is their measure of success? Would they result in bringing forth a pro-government or pro-Taliban stance or a win-win situation for both? Either of the options does not promise lasting peace. Allowing insurgents and anti-state elements a platform to voice their demands and form even the governmental committee with a few members that enjoy Taliban approval not only legitimises the insurgents but has already placed them on a superior footing. To date, except for supporting the option of dialogue and a chocked demand to remain within the constitutional framework, there is apparently no other governmental stance. Any demands and preconditions placed have been entirely by the TTP, whether it be an apparent unilateral ceasefire from the government’s side, seeking the release of TTP prisoners, stay on executions as well as retaining their weapons.

Since the commencement of the negotiations, besides photo-ops and Taliban interlocutors enjoying joy rides on helicopters fueled by tax-payer money, the Taliban have not even been asked to give up their weapons or put a halt to the daily dose of select killings and terrorism, beyond lip service by the otherwise glib interior minister. Interestingly, none of the previous accords signed between insurgents and government forces such as Shakai (2004), Srarogha (2005) and Swat (2008), could convince the militants to disarm. And as common sense suggests, if there is no disarmament there is little logic and incentive to demobilise. And as expected, very soon after the conclusion of any of these accords, the militants found an excuse to violate the peace terms and became more lethal.

As armchair analysts, it is easy to support ‘decisive’ military action, with a similar stance taken by the media. However, one is reminded of 2008, when General Musharraf was urged by a majority of the people, among whom prominent media figures were the most vocal, to crush the Lal Masjid vigilante brigade. What happened next was what the General had apprehensively voiced. The security forces used their lethal might, and within minutes, the media-steered public opinion turned against the government. No one raised a question about why a holy place was stashed with weapons better-suited for a private army, and who had given the vigilantes and their handlers the permission to terrorise the people and hold the capital city hostage. What everyone focused on was how brutal the government was and that those killed inside the mosque were young Hafiz-e-Quran girls and boys. Besides this immediate and severe backlash, the biggest fallout of this operation was a chain of bombings across the country, insurgency in Swat and organised suicide attacks.

Prior to its commencement, most of the political parties supported dialogue, which has been duly initiated. Taking a cue from the TTP’s actions, there is little hope for the promised peace that political actors ensure as a follow-up to dialogue. The talks will also not succeed in terms of TTP agreeing with the state perspective. In a way, the much criticised dialogue not only leaves no option unexplored but in the longer-run, also clears all doubts about what is the correct course of action to take. Usually such dialogues succeed only if the other party is at a relative disadvantage and perceives incentives in peace talks. Secondly, the call for Shariah also raises several questions: who would be the Amir ul Momineen - the elected prime minister or the head of TTP? If the TTP’s version of the dialogue is successful, would it remain a Pakhtoon-dominated organisation or have the various ethnic ‘chapter’ lending the supreme commander their full support and allegiance? That is where one can optimistically presume the initiation of factionalism and infighting amongst the TTP cadres. But this remains a thought only. Finally, when the country’s constitution is already drafted in accordance with the Islamic code, there is left not space for dissenting voices.

In case the talks fail, fully coordinated and crushing military action appears to be the only option left. There will be violations, collateral damage, killing of own population, deadly reprisal attacks and so on. Media-led debates and print analyses have a very short shelf life. Decisive military action would yield results only if there is a broad-based political consensus supplemented by public support. The military as a state institution has already paid a heavy price in this infighting, and cannot act alone unless the entire state machinery including judiciary and law enforcement agencies move in sync. The time for alternate options is closing in and the government has very tough decisions to make.