Is Sharif making a deal with the devil?

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Nowhere to hide People are living in fear because the security forces are unwilling to fight the Taliban
Nowhere to hide People are living in fear because the security forces are unwilling to fight the Taliban. Photo: AFP

Islamabad finally managed to hold an all-parties conference (APC) on 12 September on the issue of fighting terrorism. Earlier, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur) and the Awami National Party (ANP) had also held similar meetings as their concern regarding terrorism seems to be the greatest — their main constituency is Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in north Pakistan, where violence is at its worst. The ANP, in particular, has suffered the most due to the number of killings of its leaders in the past five years.

An effort to hold an APC on terrorism earlier by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) had boomeranged due to lack of cooperation from Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The cricketer-turned-politician had opted to go to London instead of taking some time to attend the conference. Khan might have chosen to give a cold shoulder to his key rival, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, then purely for political reasons. Otherwise, both Sharif and Khan stand on the same page on parleys with the Taliban. In fact, the APC finally held focussed on the sole issue of negotiating peace with the killers of 40,000 people, including around 4,000 military personnel.

The APC was melodramatic in content for four reasons. First, it was presented as a great example of civil-military bonhomie with army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani claiming to follow the civilian leadership’s command. At the APC, Gen Kayani and ISI chief Lt Gen Zaheer-ul-Islam briefed senators on the prevailing terror situation. No one seems to have questioned the fact that the politicians present at the APC, including those from the government, did not have any means to ascertain the efficacy of the military’s claims regarding the threat of terrorism.

Indeed, contrary to what people thought about his urge to correct the civil-military balance, Prime Minister Sharif seems to be capitulating to the military’s pressure. This is denoted by the inaction of the Defence Committee of the Cabinet and the resurrection of the National Security Council in which four senior four-star generals will enjoy an equal status as the civilians. Reportedly, the Sharif government has also outsourced the creation of national security and counter-terrorism policies to the military’s National Defence University.

Second, an image is being created which suggests that talking to the Taliban is solely a civilian idea and that the army is eager to fight the Taliban and launch an attack in North Waziristan. Many of the Pushtoon intellectuals argue that the army has never intended to attack North Waziristan nor will it try to do so in the future. The area holds one of the army’s primary assets, Sirrajuddin Haqqani, with whom the General Headquarters (GHQ), Rawalpindi, does not want to have a battle. Interestingly, the army appears to be now too eager to appease the militants since it undertook a secret exchange of prisoners with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which was denied by the army, but confirmed by all sources close to the Taliban.

Third, it seems as if all political parties and the military were waiting to endorse the decision to talk to the Taliban without determining the issue on which concessions will be made. In fact, within 48 hours of a decision to talk being made, KPK Chief Minister Pervez Khattak had announced the army’s withdrawal from Swat, Buner and Shangla in the coming months, which was one of the Taliban’s pre-conditions. No one seems to be talking about what will happen to the people when the army — which is currently the only face of the Pakistani State — withdraws from a place like Swat, which has seen a lot of bloodshed in the recent past.

Referring to the peace deal, within 24 hours of the APC ending, the Taliban presented the federal government with a 64-page letter explaining its 35 demands, which include the withdrawal of troops from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), imposition of sharia in FATA, replacement of the army with the Frontier Constabulary, which will not leave the cantonments, the release of around 4,750 prisoners, compensation of damage done to the Taliban due to drone strikes and Pakistan military action, stopping of drone attacks, etc.

Observing the hurried decisions, it almost looks like a pre-arranged deal to have peace with the Taliban in return for their prisoners and compensation. The government doesn’t even want to pretend to take time to think about the demands or present its own set of demands to the TTP. It seems GHQ, Rawalpindi, will be too happy with the Taliban giving some understanding that they will not attack the military, its agencies and Pakistan’s perceived heartland in Punjab.

One wonders if anyone undertook a detailed analysis of what happens when a large number of criminals are set free. What will be the guarantee that they will not strike the State and the people again? Has anyone thought about compensation to the ordinary people in FATA, KPK and other places whose lives were destroyed by the Taliban? In any case, some of the Taliban’s partners in Punjab and Sindh are already looking forward to moving their action to Afghanistan after 2014, which may bring down the level of violence in Pakistan, at least, temporarily.

In reference to the demand for imposition of sharia, I’m reminded of a chat I had in 2011 with Gen Ziauddin Butt, the man appointed by Sharif as the army chief, which led to a coup by Gen Parvez Musharraf in 1999. We were talking about the threat posed by the Taliban in Swat and his opinion was that it was not a threat since all that needs to be done is to impose sharia in Swat. The idea is so shortsighted and does not calculate the situation when the jihadis and Taliban, who are now comfortably ensconced in Punjab and Sindh, will make similar demands for the rest of the country. If, for instance, the TTP manages to publicise its governance as an ideal type that provides security for all, as was propagated about the Taliban regime of the 1990s, then the demand for such a regime in the rest of the country will increase. (Taliban will probably then be competing with the Pakistani State, which is not likely to show better governance even in the next five years. This means people will have an immediate comparison.)

Fourth, one had hoped that the APC would not be limited to a decision on talking to the Taliban, but will also take critical decisions regarding strengthening law enforcement or changing the mechanism for collecting evidence in terror cases, or building capacity of the police to fight terror. The country faces a situation where the police are weary of fighting any form of militancy out of fear that they will be targeted at a later stage.

The operation against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi, for instance, was followed by a détente. It was during this period that the MQM militants reportedly killed around 100 police officers. A similar thing happened with the State’s dealings with the Lashkar-e-Jhangavi during the late 1990s. One can imagine what might be going through the minds of the law enforcement officers who were involved in operations against the Taliban in the past 11 years. With the State cutting a deal with the Taliban, the sense of insecurity would deepen to a point where they will have no intention to fight back on the State’s behalf. The APC on fighting militancy seems to have achieved only one thing — increase the vulnerability of the State and society and leave a lot of people feeling unprotected.

What is even sadder is the lack of clarity in the society. Despite that the TTP killed a major general and two other officers even after the talks offer, there are many, including Gen Kayani, who believe that the talks must go on. Besides the right-wingers, even some of the so-called liberals believe that this formula will bring peace as the only problem pertains to the American presence in the region rather than internal sources of terrorism. Once the US withdraws, many will realise that the problem of militancy always resided internally. Sadly, by then it will be too late to do anything about it.

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc

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