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Dialogue with the Taliban

May 27, 2013

THE incoming prime minister has extended an olive branch to the terrorists who are responsible for the unprecedented electoral violence in the run-up to the May 11 polls.

May 11 can be termed a victory for the democratic forces against the extremists who had declared their intentions to disrupt the electoral process through bloodshed. However, the next chief executive may have revealed a defensive approach to tackling militancy.

The PML-N chief said: “Forty thousand precious lives have so far been lost and the national economy is suffering a loss of billions of dollars. Why should not we sit for a dialogue to restore peace? Is it a bad option?” Then he answered himself: “It is the best available option.”

The army chief has also spoken on militancy after the elections. “In these elections, the people of Pakistan not only courageously withstood the threat of terrorism, they also defied the unfounded dictates of an insignificant and misguided minority,” he said.

Does one not get the impression that the political hub in Lahore and GHQ are not on the same page on tackling militancy? Did the post-election three-hour tête-à-tête in Lahore not broach the issue of the civilian-military disconnect on national security issues?

Unlike diplomatic negotiations with an enemy on account of the threat of war or amidst active hostilities, the dialogue with the militants, who are your fellow citizens, resembles negotiations with hostage-takers or outlaws who must be brought within the bounds of the law.

The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a proscribed militant organisation that has unleashed suicide bombers on security and law enforcement agencies and is involved in the brutal killings of thousands of innocent citizens. Hundreds of schools have been bombed and educating young girls has been declared un-Islamic by these religious extremists. Thousands of inhabitants of terror-affected areas have fled and become homeless. The militants have even termed democracy un-Islamic.

So, under what rules of engagement will the democratic government explore avenues of negotiations with the utterly non-democratic, obscurantist and obdurate extremists? Will the battle-hardened warrior brigades of the Pakistani Taliban express remorse for the huge loss of life at their hands and agree to shun violence and to give peace a chance within the constitutional framework? Will the state security forces accept the responsibility for human rights violations during operations wherein innocent men, women and children were caught in the crossfire or displaced in the thousands and dumped in camps away from the comfort of their homes?

These are some of the questions that the Pakistani state and society must answer before hastily entering into negotiations with the extremists. This is not only a battle for hearts and minds; it is a matter that revolves around a comprehensive national approach to tackling militancy. The following course of action is suggested for a mature and concerted strategy before initiating a dialogue with the TTP.

The first step should be hard talk with the US on the drone attacks. This is a major point of national resentment and affects our self-respect and sovereignty. Despite a clandestine agreement by an earlier military regime and a look-the-other-way approach by the previous government, the new political government has to clearly redefine the red lines with the US administration. This firm and fair approach will surely soften the TTP resistance and the state will be seen as reasserting its authority on national security matters.

On the home front, a new parliamentary committee on national security should hold in-camera as well as open hearings in order to lay down a broad strategic framework to tackle militancy. The legislature’s taking the lead will reflect the political will and vision of the new government.

Another simultaneous step is for the executive to firm up the rules of engagement for dialogue with the insurgents and terrorists. The Defence Committee of the Cabinet under the prime minister, with key federal ministers, the military services chiefs and heads of the intelligence agencies must come up with a strategy and a plan of action that should be comprehensive and practical.

The political and military leadership must be on the same page and approval of the cabinet must be obtained on the rules of engagement and negotiations with the TTP.

A national security team of experts, with military, police, civil armed forces and intelligence backgrounds, should analyse all the previous operations undertaken by the military in the federally and provincially administered tribal areas (Fata and Pata) so that a professional counterinsurgency doctrine is followed that allows the military to undertake quick operations followed by police response in the middle and the military on the periphery. Within the bubble of military security, the police are meant to treat insurgents as criminals rather than as targets beyond the protection of the law.

The terrorism problem will not go away unless the civilian law enforcement approach is followed for legitimacy and justice. A strong-arm military strategy is not a sound approach to building up public resistance against the terrorists. The military commanders should enable the transition security activities from combat operations to law enforcement as quickly as possible. The great effectiveness multiplier in the use of state power against violence is the allegiance and support of the public.

Any use of force, military or police, must serve a political purpose, namely de-legitimising the terrorists and legitimising the government. A successful counterterrorism strategy is balancing the kind of force used, not foregoing force altogether. Getting the balance right between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ uses of force is the key strategic decision.

Finally, to talk or fight or to talk and fight; that is the question which requires to be answered with clarity by building a national consensus which is the essence of democracy. This will be the main challenge of the incoming PML-N government — to show whether it has the vision and will to forge a fresh security strategy in pursuit of our national objectives.

The writer is former DG, FIA.