HOT off the Taliban press: the Islamic Emirate of North Waziristan has been approached, cap in hand, by the illegitimate and unlawful Democratic Republic of Pakistan suing for peace.
Benevolently, the Islamic Emirate has agreed to consider the surrender, but has laid down aggressive, non-negotiable terms that the illegitimate and unlawful Democratic Republic must agree to.
Barring that, the Islamic Emirate will wage war with conviction and purpose until the enemy is defeated and peace, security and the Islamic way are established.
Now back to the real world.
The cravenness of the government’s offer of dialogue has already been skewered. Less clear is what’s propelling the apparent narrative of defeat. There are several theories, so let’s turn to them.
The cynical version: wait a few months. The government and the army know dialogue won’t work, they know what needs to be done, military operations are inevitable, for miscellaneous reasons the timing isn’t right right now, so wait a few months. All will be revealed.
The pragmatic version: the civilians want to beef up the intel and security apparatus in the cities — Nacta, intel coordination, rapid-reaction force, etc — before taking the fight to a Taliban divided by the carrot of talks being dangled right now. Stronger defences, a weaker opponent — stuff the government thinks it can buy with time.
The embarrassing version: unwilling to go it alone, desperate for buy-in from across the political spectrum, the only way for the government to rope in the religious right and the PTI was to dilute the language against their militant friends. Hence the craven tone and tenor of the resolution.
The scary version: the PML-N has a militancy problem of its own. Between the fear factor (Punjab going up in flames) and the sympathy factor (voter and candidate in the Punjabi heartland have a soft spot for those who fight in the name of Islam), the government can’t afford to alienate its base. Better then to plead and grovel before the militants.
Or, just as likely, it could be a combination of those four theories driving the narrative of defeat.
In outcomes, there are three possibilities. One, Swat redux. A deal is struck, the Taliban get what they want, but then they get greedy and hasty and end up doing something that angers or alienates the country. The hammer is brought down and the Taliban recede.
Two, coexistence. A deal is struck, the Taliban get to keep their infrastructure of jihad and nurture and grow it out of public view, attacks go down significantly, the state can go back to pretending things are OK, the militancy ball gets kicked down the road again, perhaps to explode soon or, who knows, just slowly deflate.
Three, shambolic ebb and flow. The future will mimic the present: the state clumsily trying to tamp down the militancy threat, the militants succeeding in hurting the country but never really threatening to take over. The deal struck, like the many before it, will fade into the distance, no one quite sure why it didn’t work or whether it still holds or not.
Which outcome is the likeliest?
Hard to say because reliable information on the state’s will and the militants’ capacity is so scarce.But the risks are reasonably clear. First, and most obviously, the Taliban can use the period of dialogue, and even the duration a deal holds, to regroup and rebuild. Bigger, stronger, faster — the Taliban on steroids.
Second, the battlefield successes in Swat and six of Fata’s seven agencies could unravel if the Taliban are allowed to publicly resurface and saunter around shielded by an amnesty or immunity deal.
Third — least obviously, very likely and most damagingly — the narrative war may be lost for good.
Narratives matter a great deal. War is a dirty, ugly business; counter-insurgencies even more so. Vacillate on whether the enemy is or isn’t the enemy and that erodes the space you need to take on the enemy.
Have a look at KP. Imran and the PTI are running around talking about peace, making the Taliban out to be wayward souls in need of some attention and affection, and immediately it has had an impact — on the provincial security apparatus.
It’s the same police, the same officers, the same foot soldiers in KP as before the election. But there’s a difference now: they are more hesitant, more wracked by uncertainty, less willing to lead. Why?
The narrative has changed. The PTI thinks a deal can be cut, so why should the police put their lives on the line to fight or defend against militants who may soon be embraced as model citizens?
The problem with narratives is twofold. One, you can’t just toggle back and forth between competing narratives. Pick one and it has lingering effects.
Two, some narratives are more difficult to build and sustain than others. In Pakistan, the Islamist narrative is the easiest to trot out, or, conversely, the most difficult to push back against.
Legitimised by the state and accepted by society, what the Taliban say — Islam, by any means necessary — is digested more easily than, say, what the army has been hawking lately: the state must not confer legitimacy on those who seek to illegitimately wrest power to remake state and society in their own likeness.
It’s a strange, new world where the army understands that narratives are important and is backing the right one, but the civilians are oblivious to both the power of narratives and the damage they are causing by backing the wrong one.
Perhaps the best that can be hoped for in this strange, new world is that the Islamic Emirate of North Waziristan will break from form and do something stupid; forcing the collective survival instinct of Pakistan to kick in.
At least the survival instinct is a narrative that doesn’t have to be learned or explained.
The writer is a member of staff. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @cyalm