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Perils of reaching out

June 18, 2013

IN his first press conference after winning the elections last month, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Pervez Khattak surprised hardly anyone with his comments regarding the stance of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), on the Pakistani Taliban.

Khattak said: “We appeal to the Taliban that we are not at war with you, this province is yours … [and] we are ready to honour you.”

Call it lack of experience or a well-thought-out party line, but the remarks by Mr Khattak were alarming in their context, if not content.

For the last decade we have been watching people die in a war against religious militants. Now the PTI leadership in KP wants people to forget and forgive what has happened and invite the Taliban to usher in a new era of development. This points to a compromise where both sets of Taliban — “good” or “bad” — would be accepted wholeheartedly.

This confused mindset is the outcome of an ineffective counterterrorism strategy pursued by the state, which has caused militancy to flourish.

What justification can be offered to wipe from the history books the struggle of thousands of people who laid down their lives while fighting the forces of terror? Despite winning, do the PTI leaders have the moral authority to interpret their newfound mandate as the public’s acceptance of their stance on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)?

Understandably, people in KP are weary of violence and want an early end to the bloodshed. This reconciliatory mood, nevertheless, should not be translated into the kind of language the PTI leadership has used to woo the Taliban. Political over-enthusiasm of the sort is neither reflective of true public aspirations nor is it helpful in bringing an end to terrorism.

For the public, the TTP’s reign of terror is too horrible a tragedy to be forgotten and forgiven so easily. That was the message we got in 2008 when public reaction against the TTP’s terror attacks enabled the anti-Taliban Awami National Party (ANP) to win a landslide victory in KP. This success was meant to help politicians get rid of the terrorists.

However, the ANP during its rule in the province resorted merely to abstract rhetorical constructs, which did not deliver anything concrete to the public.

For example, the ANP won the 2008 elections by giving people the impression that the liberal and secular credentials of the party would not let any sign of conservatism gain a foothold in the province.

Therefore, the election slogans conveying messages such as ‘Kalashnikov na kalam’ (preference for pen and books over gun) helped win the party a maximum number of seats in the terror-hit areas, especially in Swat valley where the ANP won all seven provincial assembly seats.

Yet once in power, the ANP leadership paid no attention to the hundreds of schools destroyed in Swat, nor did the party complete any major development work. For example, the important Kanju Ayub bridge has not yet been completed while the 2010 floods destroyed the 35km-long Swat-Kalam road, which is the backbone of the tourist economy. The road is still in a shambles.

The same is true for the broken promises of restoring normal public life in the province. Instead, corruption charges against Azam Hoti, father of former ANP chief minister Ameer Haider Hoti, went viral.

On top of that, the ANP’s jingoistic nationalist slogans such as ‘watan ya kafan’ in the 2013 elections were seen as little more than political point-scoring. By offering old wine in a new bottle, the ANP high command intended to cash in on the Taliban’s targeted killing of their workers. But this could not convince the voters.

In the last leg of their election campaign, the ANP leadership started criticising the lack of security for its candidates and workers.

Though the loss of over 60 party workers in the last two months before the elections speaks volumes for the challenges the party faced in its campaign, such barriers do not mean that the party should have stopped searching for alternatives to fulfilling election promises and looking for ways to reach out to its voters.

Similarly, the PTI’s coming to power does not mean that the public mood on terrorism has swung from one extreme to another. It simply means that the ANP failed to fulfil election promises, which pushed voters into the swirling orbit of Imran Khan’s ‘tsunami’.

Therefore, this change does not introduce Imran Khan as a factor in the politics of KP, where the concept of a permanent vote bank hardly exists as it may appear to do so in Punjab or Sindh.

Concerning the Taliban, the PTI cannot afford its peace overtures to be casual and one-sided. Public aspirations and sensitivities should also be taken into consideration for two reasons. First, the TTP know that they are good in fighting only, which is why the more they achieve, the more they demand. Peace for the Taliban means a brief lull in fighting, which hardly makes them reliable partners.

Second, the PTI’s over-enthusiasm in embracing the TTP resembles the ANP’s over-smartness in confronting them. Public aspirations are sandwiched between these two extremes, which is going to damage the future prospects of both parties if not handled properly.

The confused political vision is further strengthening powerful segments of the security apparatus, responsible for creating the lethal binary of the good/bad Taliban.

Therefore, politicians need to satisfy civilian concerns related to security and development. Achieving either of the two is not possible in the presence of a strong Taliban network.

The test for the PTI leadership in KP and the PML-N in the centre lies in finding measures which can weaken the Taliban network without necessarily fighting them. Apologetic official statements can only strengthen the militants by giving them more confidence.

The writer is a journalist and PhD student at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, US.