THURSDAY’S multi-party conference said three things: peace is important; dialogue should be our preferred tool for attaining it; no solution can violate the country’s constitution, laws or sovereignty. But what does a statement that vague — one that doesn’t even mention the possibility of military action — mean in the face of an enemy as unreasonable as the Pakistani Taliban? The varying messages the TTP has sent have not been encouraging. Conditions for talks might have been scaled back to the release of some prisoners and guarantees by select politicians, but those for a ceasefire have included such unacceptable demands as rewriting the constitution and waging war against India. In fact, yesterday, the TTP rejected the ANP-sponsored conference in which the PTI and JI were conspicuous by their absence. The militants continue to pledge allegiance to Al Qaeda, oppose democracy and refuse to stop violence until after dialogue — a position they have backed up by carrying out a slew of attacks, including, possibly, yesterday’s attempt to kill the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister. Meanwhile, considering the TTP is an umbrella organisation, it is unclear which of its factions and affiliates agree with Hakeemullah Mehsud’s offer of talks and whether he can guarantee their good behaviour in any deal.
So for starters, it is unfortunate that the Pakistani state has let things get to a point where such terms are being dictated to it by an extremist militant organisation. But now that we have dug ourselves into this hole, a clear and forceful strategy is the only way to get out of it. Multi-party conferences inevitably end up producing sketchy resolutions because strong positions cannot be taken while still getting everyone to agree. Which is precisely why Pakistan needs a lot more than a broad-based conference — or a parliamentary resolution of the kind passed in October 2008 — to tackle the problem. What it needs is a viable and multi-pronged strategy, a concrete plan to support that strategy, and effective civil-military collaboration to devise and implement these.
Instead the military, the government and political parties have all been trying to evade responsibility, failing to realise that by not uniting on a tough position against the Taliban they are headed towards their own demise. Ultimately, though, the buck stops with the administration, not with parties outside parliament or even the opposition. The ruling coalition consists of several secular parties. They need to develop a plan with the military that may include talks but will not hesitate to take military action. The TTP has been audacious with its demands, and there is no reason for the state to demonstrate weakness in return.