In recent days, the PML-N and PTI have announced their readiness to talk to the TTP.
What a shame.
In effect, these two parties — one soon to govern Pakistan, the other to govern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa — are saying they’re willing to hunker down with monsters who shoot schoolgirls at point-blank range, gun down health workers in Pakistan’s sickest regions, and brandish severed heads, by the hair and with gusto, as the cameras roll.
It’s actually not the idea of talking to savages that I find objectionable. After all, history is rife with examples of governments negotiating with sadistic forces. In some cases—think the Irish Republican Army and Colombia’s FARC rebels—these efforts have actually been quite successful, and resulted in peaceful outcomes.
What bothers me (as an outsider, admittedly) is the fact that talking to the Pakistani Taliban simply doesn’t make sense, and for three simple reasons.
First, the TTP has repeatedly reneged on previous peace deals. In 2009, following several years’ worth of alleged agreements with the state, the TTP did not lay down itsarms. Instead it lay claim to Swat—and instituted a reign of terror. If another olive branch is officially extended to KP-based Taliban forces, expect an emboldened TTP to regroup before establishingnew areas of violently enforced authority that ban girls from going to school and stifle free expression — including the social media that helped fuel the PTI’s rise. This scenario would not only be gloomy, but alsoironic—given that the PTI’s message of change has targeted, in part, educated, tech-savvy urbanites, including many women.
Second, the TTP wants to demolish Pakistan’s political system; it often articulates its fervent desire to destroy “anti-Islamic” democracy.While much has been made of the TTP’s campaign of election-related violence against Pakistan’s secular political parties, spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan has also insinuated that all participants in the democratic system are fair game — including, presumably, the PTI and PML-N. “We are not expecting any good from the other parties either, who are supporters of the same system, but why they are not targeted is our own prerogative to decide,” he explained ominously to Dawn.com several weeks back.
The third reason why it makes little sense to talk to the TTP is that the government doesn’t operate from a position of strength. Experts often say it’s best to negotiate when your interlocutor is on the defensive. The TTP, however, is very much on the offensive. Its highly organised, and wholly uncontested, assault on political parties this election season came on the heels of a relentless rash of attacks in KP that had analysts speaking of the “potential loss” of Peshawar to the TTP. By agreeing to talk now, you’re effectively surrendering — or at the very least, acknowledging your fundamental vulnerability.
Stop being hypocritical, you might say. The US government supports dialogue with the Afghan Taliban, so why lambast Pakistan’s willingness to talk to the TTP?
This may sound like a reasonable rebuttal — but it’s not. Some members of the Afghan Taliban, unlike those of the TTP, have expressed a willingness to participate in a future democratic Afghan government (already, in fact,some Afghan government officials are former Taliban fighters). The Afghan Taliban appears open to operating within the existing political system, and not necessarily intent on obliterating it. It also has no legacy of reneging on peace agreements (though to be fair, it’s never concluded one).
At any rate, the comparison being made here is a shaky one. One case involves a state wishing to negotiate with an indigenous anti-government insurgency. The other involves a foreign power wanting to talk with a local entity that it previously overthrew in a military intervention. This amounts to comparing apples and elephants.
A more convincing argument in favor of talking to the TTP is this: Despite the heroic efforts of the Pakistan Army, military strategies have failed to quell the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency.
There’s certainly truth to this view. And it underscores an important point: Neither a military strategy nor a negotiating strategy can alone tame the TTP. Other policies will be of the essence as well: Hard-line ideological narratives must be countered, more prompt arrests and prosecutions must take place, and better policing must be instituted.
These won’t be easy steps to take. Yet they’ll be even tougher to take if Pakistan pursues peace deals destined to be violated; offers incentives to join a political system that is fundamentally rejected; and attempts to bargain with a far more powerful foe.
Again, I readily admit this is an outsider’s perspective. And I acknowledge there’s something to be said for doing anything possible to end the horrific TTP-orchestrated violence that’s maimed and killed so many people in recent years.
Yet, is now the right time to throw in the towel? I don’t think so.
The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at email@example.com ———————————————————————————————————————————————— The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.