Should Pakistan negotiate with terrorists?

Should Pakistan negotiate with terrorists?

There is a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to the Pakistani governments now on, again, the decision to ‘negotiate’ with the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan. Let’s be clear first, the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, are not the same as the Afghanistan Taliban. The latter consider themselves to be freedom fighters working to rid their country of foreign occupiers.

The Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, is a purely local movement. Based largely in the Northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, they want to see an Islamic system of government installed in Pakistan. They reject the Pakistani constitution and the democratic system of the government in general. And to this end, they have waged a campaign of terror over the years. Their suicide bombers have killed and maimed tens of thousands of innocent Pakistani civilians. They have attacked military bases, destroying aircraft and equipment. Army convoys have been ambushed and bombed. 

The Pakistani government and political parties have vacillated on how to deal with the TTP. The question has been: Shall we fight or talk? The latest attempt to arrive at a decision was on Sept. 9, 2013. The main political parties were invited by the Government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for an All Parties Conference in Islamabad. It was broadly agreed to ‘negotiate’ with the TTP.

The TTP’s response came five days later: A roadside bomb killed a respected Pakistani Major General and his aide as they returned from inspecting troops in the Upper Dir District of KPK. Embarrassed, the government vowed tough action. Nothing was done. And a few days later, the talk once again turned to a negotiated solution. 

In some sense, this has been the general pattern in which the government has dealt with the TTP. They hold out an olive branch. The TTP commits another atrocity. The government talks tough. And then holds out another olive branch. And the cycle continues.

The current love-fest seems to have made more progress. The government has, for the first time, nominated its negotiating team. And the TTP have nominated theirs, which, as the farce worthy of Oscar Wilde unfolds, includes Imran Khan, the charismatic leader of the popular political party Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf. It seems unlikely that Mr. Khan’s party will allow him to accept this new honor.

But all of this is not what gives this saga its other worldly quality. The real issue is: Should the government be talking at all to terrorists? And if they do talk, what will they say? Do they say all is forgiven? We forgive you for the tens of thousands of people you have murdered and the millions of dollars of damage you have caused. Further, we agree to abrogate our constitution, resign our seats in Parliament, enact a new constitution based on your version of the Shariah, and invite you to ensconce your “Khalifa” in Islamabad.

The general public is watching all this with somewhat bemused disbelief. They know – as would any objective observer with common sense –there is no common ground. And they also know that in the end, the TTP will have to be defeated on the battleground, not the conference room. So why are politicians reluctant to do what needs to be done? No one is quite sure about the answer. There are reports that many prominent politicians – especially in the KPK – have cut deals with the TTP.

Protection money is being paid so the politicians can, by staying alive and hence remaining in power, recover their multimillion dollar expenses incurred in winning the last elections.

And what does Pakistan’s powerful Army make of all this? They have not, sensibly, expressed their preferences in public. But it is not hard to imagine they are rearing to have a go at uprooting their nemesis and would like nothing better than a clean, unrestricted mandate from the civilian administration to use whatever means necessary to achieve this objective.

The Army has proved that it has the ability, will and firepower to extirpate the TTP. The last time they received a clear mandate to do so was in 2009 when the TTP and affiliated groups had occupied the Swat District. Within a few weeks, they defeated and evicted the occupiers, enforced the government’s writ and allowed hundreds of thousands of refugees to return to their homes.

But for the time being, at least it seems that Pakistanis are going to have to wait and see the outcome of the government’s ‘negotiations’ with the TTP. And what will be discussed? Lewis Carroll, many years ago, put it best: “The time has come,“ the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.”

Nadeem M Qureshi is Chairman of Mustaqbil Pakistan