ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s latest decision to form a committee to address the scourge of militancy appears to have been made in haste and without much homework.
Turning up in the parliament after two days of speculation and leaked reports that he was going to appear in the National Assembly that he had avoided for months, the prime minister finally appeared to announce that he had formed a four-member committee to respond to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s latest talks offer.
His announcement took many by surprise.
The committee comprises senior journalist Rahimullah Yousufzai, the recently appointed special assistant to the prime minister and columnist Irfan Siddiqui, the Operation Midnight Jackal fame former official of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Maj (retd) Amir and former ambassador and a member of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Rustam Shah Mohmand.
The committee was discussed all day long for a number of reasons – most of them negative.
First, two of its members are once again from the media group that is seen to be very close to the government; the last chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board also came from the same group. And this time around, Siddiqui had just days earlier been appointed a special adviser to the prime minister.
Second, none of its members are politicians, which will impact its credibility generally and especially as far as the political class is concerned.
Third, none of them are known to have any well-known links with the TTP.
Fourth, it is hard to see how they will exercise authority on behalf of an elected government.
Fifth, who they would talk to (there are multiple Taliban groups operating in Fata) and what they would talk about remains unclear.
Sixth, no timeline has been set for how long this latest talks effort will go on.
Indeed, Mr Sharif’s decision has not impressed anyone – including the committee members who appeared quite half hearted about the task that they have accepted.
The immediate reaction of the four members as they spoke on the electronic media betrayed their lack of information about and their faith in their ‘mission’ and that they accepted the offer on the personal insistence of Mr Sharif.
The morning surprise
For instance, Rahimullah Yousufzai told Dawn that the prime minister made him the offer in the morning as he (Sharif) was going to the National Assembly.
“I was surprised,” said Mr Yousufzai, explaining that having gone through the statements of Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah and Adviser Sartaj Aziz in Washington, he had assumed that the government had decided to launch a military operation.
Worse still was the reaction of former ambassador to Afghanistan and PTI leader Rustam Shah Mohmand. In his first reaction to the media, he claimed that he was not consulted by the prime minister before his nomination in the committee.
The prime minister in his speech had stated that Mr Mohmand’s name had been proposed by the PTI-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government.
In fact, some people went so far as to claim that Mr Mohmand’s name would allow the PML-N to achieve a two-fold aim – hold the PTI responsible for the path the talks take and avoid being blasted by it, as the PTI is one of the most vociferous proponents of dialogue and the harshest critic of the use of force.
Confusion reigns supreme
Mr Yousufzai admitted that he was not aware of the framework under which the group would be asked to talk with the militants; what they would be allowed to negotiate or not negotiate and whether or not they would be allowed to make any commitment on behalf of the government.
“We will only play the role of a facilitator since every decision will have to be taken both by the government and the Taliban,” he said.
No wonder then that most of them are pessimistic over the outcome of this fresh initiative, terming the situation complex.
Mr Yousufzai advised the nation not to have high expectations.
About a possible strategy, he said that they would first like to know the reasons for the failure of the previous attempts made by the government to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Mr Mohmand didn’t appear to be any more optimistic. Talking to a news channel, he said he feared that those Taliban groups which were against peace talks might sabotage the new initiative. All he could offer in terms of details was that the government would have to make its policy clear over the possible demands of the Taliban that include conditions such as release of prisoners and withdrawal of the army from Fata.
Irfan Siddiqui, in his press conference in the evening, did not provide any answers about what the terms of reference were and who they would talk to. All he could say was that he hoped that the Taliban would also form a committee, but did not clarify which Taliban he was referring to.
No wonder then that it was hard to find a politician or an analyst to express any confidence in what this committee would achieve.
In fact, many people termed it a decoy; a stillborn move that would simply allow the PML-N to claim that it tried its best to explore the option for talks.
For instance, one commentator said the committee’s composition was aimed at pre-empting criticism in case talks failed, adding that it would also silence apologists. Another journalist claimed in a tweet that the committee was simply going to deflect attention as the military operation went on quietly.
It was hard to find anyone who was willing to predict that the committee would achieve much.
RAHIMULLAH YOUSUFZAI: Mr Yousufzai, 60, is a Peshawar-based veteran journalist having good repute in the community and political circles. He is considered to be the first journalist to have reported on Taliban in the 1990s. He visited Kandahar in 1995 and is known for his interviews with former Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Mr Yousufzai is currently working as editor of The News International at Peshawar bureau. He is considered an expert on Afghanistan affairs and has complete knowledge of political and social dynamics of tribal life.
MAJ (RETD) AMIR: Major Amir and Brigadier Imtiaz were the two main characters of “Operation Midnight Jackal”, which was allegedly launched to topple the first Benazir Bhutto government through a no-trust motion in 1989.
The former ISI operative used to be a special adviser to former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Sardar Mehtab Abbasi, once a close aide of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
It is believed that Major Amir still has close contacts with some Taliban groups and new TTP chief Maulvi Fazlullah has a great respect for him because of his father’s role in launching a movement called Ashaat Tauheed-o-Sunnah through his Madressah in Swabi’s Panjpir village.
The Madressah is reportedly being run by Major Amir’s brother. Maj Amir is said to have cordial relations with the heads of both factions of the JUI – Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Maulana Samiul Haq.
During the previous PPP government, there were reports that Major Amir had been seen with then president Asif Ali Zardari and even visited Saudi Arabia as part of an official delegation with him in 2008.
RUSTAM SHAH MOHMAND: Mr Mohmand, a senior diplomat and politician who has specialised in Afghanistan and Central Asian affairs, is a member of the PTI, the party which is a staunch supporter of peace talks with Taliban.
He is also a member of the KP advisory committee, headed by Imran Khan. It advises the provincial government on development and planning.
Mr Mohmand had previously served as ambassador in Afghanistan, interior secretary and had held position of chief commissioner for refugees for about 10 years.
IFRAN SIDDIQUI: A columnist by profession, Mr Siddiqui is being dubbed as the only representative of the federal government in the committee because of his recent appointment as special assistant to the prime minister on national affairs.
He writes column in an Urdu daily under the title “Naqsh-i-Khayal”. Known for his close and old association with the Sharif family, Mr Siddiqui had served as press secretary to the then president, Rafiq Tarar, during the Nawaz Sharif government in the 1990s.