Peace With Taliban at What Price?

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TalibanWhat Pakistan is offering the Taliban is a lot–no conditions attached to the proposed dialogue

By Karamatullah K. Ghori

Peace in our time is what every two-bit Pakistani politician poetically pontificates without, of course, knowing how to find that elusive Holy Grail.Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif took the token step forward in quest of peace by convening the long-delayed All Parties’ Conference (APC) to assemble the galaxy of his fellow politicians around one table, and under one roof.

Sharif’s initiative was very welcome, if for nothing else, then at least for its symbolism. Pakistani politicos have otherwise the unenviable reputation of a bunch of unruly cats whose best skills are spent in calling each other names and squabbling like frustrated house-wives.

Sharif’s well-choreographed APC came up with a consensus to hold peace parleys with the state’s adversary, which happens to be the Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) in this case. However, neither the APC’s convener, i.e. PM Nawaz Sharif, nor any of the puffed-up political ‘stake-holders’ and ‘national leaders’ assembled there, took the trouble of informing the people of Pakistan—who are the real stake-holders of the state—what the parameters of the proposed dialogue with TTP was going to be.

A dialogue is—at the very least—between two parties. To borrow a famous phrase from that bad actor-turned-poor politician, Ronald Reagan, it takes two to tango. Here, in this case, we know—now that we are wiser after the APC—that at least one party, the State of Pakistan, is eager and all-primed to talk about peace with the other party. However, the other party has yet to state, as categorically and unequivocally as the State of Pakistan, that it, too, is all prim and primed to tango. The best that we’ve heard, so far, from TTP, is a vague welcome of the government’s initiative.

An even weightier concern of this scribe—and others in my league who may not be direct stake-holders but happen to have a deep concern for peace to prevail ‘in our time’—is that the party suing for peace, the Government of Pakistan(GOP) and all other political stake-holders, hasn’t said anything about what price it expects the adversary to pay, at the very minimum?

Surprisingly, the principal party emerging from the APC seems all set to roll without laying down any conditions for the dialogue. As far as GOP is concerned, the impression even a layman would be entitled to draw, correctly, is that it’s ready to talk to the Taliban without demanding even the basic minimum that it (TTP) lay down its arms.

We shall discuss it later whether it’s a sign of weakness or over-confidence—or something else—that GOP is bravely inclined to hold peace parleys with TTP without stipulating any conditions or demands from its side. However, TTP didn’t lose a moment in coming up with its conditions for dialogue: the army withdrawn from the tribal areas and all TTP prisoners held by GOP released.

So what the layman would deduce from this obvious dichotomy in the positions of the two parties—GOP and TTP—is that GOP must feel vulnerable and weak—if not deeply distressed and frustrated—to be ready to enter the blind alley of peace parleys with its adversary without any pre-conditions, while the intractable adversary feels emboldened enough to insist that its pre-conditions be met before it comes to the table.

That TTP thinks it has the upper hand in the situation was the message writ large on the ghastly murder of the Divisional Commander of Malakand, Major-General Sanaullah and two other officers of the army in a road-side bomb blast on September 15.

TTP doesn’t want to leave anybody, including GOP and all other stake-holders of APC, in any doubt that it doesn’t want any conditions attached to the proposed peace dialogue. Adding injury to insult, it’s also making a brazen statement that it wouldn’t give up—even temporarily—what it does best: murder unsuspecting and innocent people, in uniform or mufti, in cold blood, and take pride in its bestial sport.

The murder of General Sanaullah may have rightly prompted General Kayani to warn the Taliban that while the quest of peace was his primary concern it would be a grave mistake to interpret it as the army’s lack of will or capability to “take the fight” to the enemy, if necessary and warranted.

General Kayani’s message was clear and unambiguous. It was the least expected of an army chief who’d just lost one of his senior officers to terrorism. But it doesn’t paper over the disturbing element that the army and the civilian leadership—after all the hullabaloo of the APC and the political capital Nawaz Sharif sought from it—still don’t seem to be on the same page in regard to the Taliban, and how to deal with their menace.

Cracks in the façade of unanimity Sharif was so anxious to flaunt in the wake of the APC became all too obvious with the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government, in power in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KP) demanding so quickly on its heels that the army be taken out from Malakand Division, which also includes the sensitive valley of Swat.

PTI may have its own priorities and compulsions in asking the federal government to withdraw the army from a politically fragile part of the land governed by it. But this seemingly innocuous request raises a number of questions while leaving several others unanswered.

Why should PTI rush into getting the army out of Malakand, including Swat, while the proposal of peace dialogue with TTP is still a straw in the wind? Does PTI leadership think that their gesture would help the Taliban to firm up their mind for peace parleys with Islamabad?

The PTI leader, Imran Khan, has long been an ardent champion and advocate of the argument that we bear the primary responsibility for drawing the Taliban into a fight with us, i.e. Pakistan, because we volunteered to collude with the Americans in their war against terror. Imran hasn’t wavered in his passionate espousal of the reasoning that there would not have been this bloody confrontation with the Taliban if Musharraf hadn’t—so foolishly and arrogantly—sold Pakistan down- the- river.

There’s undeniable merit in Imran’s argument, but only up to a point.

Yes, Musharraf ought to be hauled up the tallest pole in Islamabad for his culpability in the deaths of tens of thousands of our civilians and soldiers killed since the Americans swooped down on Afghanistan and spawned the Pakistani Taliban on our side of the border.

But all this legitimate crying over spilt milk doesn’t help us, at all, in coming to grips with the unfortunate ground reality of today where we have only two choices: an honorable peace with the Taliban that guarantees the sanctity of GOP’s writ over every inch of Pakistan, or a total defeat of the Taliban on the battle-field. There’s no third choice.

So at this juncture where a peace dialogue with the Taliban hasn’t even started—and still has the possibility to remain a pie-in-the-sky—KP government’s rush to have the army out of Malakand has the potential of being interpreted—not only by TTP but by independent observers, too—as appeasement, premature and ill-advised.

That Sharif doesn’t have a clue how to force the Taliban to the peace table is amply borne out from the lack of a clear and unambiguous policy guideline of his government on the peace dialogue. That he left for Turkey for an official visit while the whole nation was still mourning the murder of senior military officials may not be such an outrage—in a real world—but in the present fog of diffidence and dithering that informs the state of Pakistan it could easily be misinterpreted as cracks showing in the façade of unity between the civilian and military leaderships of the country. Any sensible and seasoned political leader would avoid treading such a path. Sharif, not a novice to the tangled and arcane game of power politics in Pakistan, is expected to be wiser.

This takes us back to square one and the basic question: what are we offering as inducement to the Taliban, and what’s on offer from them?

What the GOP is offering TTP is a lot: no conditions attached to the proposed dialogue. They are provocatively thumbing their noses at all those who think peace is a preferable option to come to terms with the scourge of terror stalking the land of Pakistan.

Enough of dithering and procrastination in the government camp: clearing the cobwebs that have marred progress to a clear road map to the desired peace process with the Taliban has become ineluctable.

Sharif, Imran et al. in the ruling hierarchy need to understand that we can’t hope to get anything viable or long-lasting from a trigger-happy Taliban leadership from a position of obvious, or perceived, weakness. There shouldn’t be a dialogue with the TTP unless they agreed, in advance, to basic minimal demands of the State: sanctity of the law of the land—the Constitution of Pakistan—and a cease-fire that should stick.

Anything less would be a waste of time.

Karamatullah Ghori is a career diplomat and former ambassador of Pakistan. He is now based in Toronto, Canada. This article was written before the recent killing of TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud

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