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Chemistry of dialogue

June 24, 2013

WHAT determines the need for initiating dialogue with the militants?

Some of the determinants could be militants’ destructive edge, their ideological influences, inability of the state and its security institutions to counter the threat, and the socio-economic and political implications of terrorism.

The state may consider all these, depending on the scale of the problem. Terrorism and extremism do not remain merely security issues once their drivers and motivating factors start getting justification in socio-cultural and ideological discourses.

No doubt, Pakistan’s security institutions are capable of flushing out militants from the tribal areas. But what next?

This is a key question. Some counterterrorism experts, political leaders and analysts present the 13 previous peace deals with the militants as evidence to prove the futility of dialogue, but they hardly try to analyse the outcome of the nine full-fledged and several small-scale military operations that were launched against militants over the past nine years or so.

The issue demands a thorough assessment of previous peace deals, military operations and also the advantages and disadvantages the militants have. It may help understand the need and methodology for initiating a dialogue with the militants or vice versa.

After 9/11, when the militants increased their activities in Fata, the military regime had tried to overcome the problem through the traditional tribal conflict resolution mechanism. The government at that time called jirgas and raised private tribal militias to punish those who had helped the militants, signed an agreement with tribes under the collective responsibility code, and gave incentives to tribal maliks.

The government distributed large sums of money on the recommendation of political agents among the maliks to betray the Al Qaeda militants they had sheltered. But the maliks kept the money without adhering to their commitments. The political administration also got involved in corruption and the misuse of such funds.

The objective of all these attempts was to expel the foreign militants from the area as their presence was putting international pressure on Pakistan. The military got an assurance from the Zalikhel Wazir tribes in its first-ever peace deal with the local tribesmen on June 27, 2002 that the property of anyone harbouring a foreigner would be destroyed.

But jirgas, lashkars, economic sanctions, plans to register foreign militants and monetary inducements failed to resolve the matter.

When these tactics failed, Pakistani troops launched their first full-scale military operation in South Waziristan in March 2004. The purpose of the operation was again to force local militants and tribesmen to expel the foreigners. The operation ended with an unwritten deal, known as the Shakai agreement.

Under the agreement, the main responsibility of the tribal elders was to assist the authorities in the registration of foreigners. While seeking clemency, the local and foreign militants were required to give up militancy and promise to not use Pakistan’s territory to launch attacks against any other country.

The first five major military operations in South and North Waziristan from 2002 to 2006 and the first five peace deals had the same focus: to expel or register foreign militants. Besides other structural and tactical flaws in these agreements, a significant strategic deficiency was a consistent failure to assess the militants’ ideological and political strength.

At the same time, the scale and scope of these operations and peace deals was partly conceived in the context of border security to allay the concerns of the US and coalition forces in Afghanistan about the presence of Al Qaeda in Pakistani tribal areas.

All these attempts failed. Apart from the mistakes made by the government and tribal elders, the foreign militants were the main spoilers of these deals.

There were two game-changing events which transformed this tribal and border conflict into a full-scale insurgency.

The first transforming factor was the North Waziristan peace agreement with Baitullah Mehsud in September 2006. The state had compromised on its basic demand to expel foreign militants to allow them to live peacefully in the tribal areas as long as they observed the law.

In the 16-clause agreement the state got the assurance that no one would attack law-enforcement personnel or state property. Baitullah had succeeded in securing a guarantee from the government that he would be allowed to enforce Sharia in the area in exchange for not sending his militants to Afghanistan.

Not only did he not keep his end of the deal, but the pact also helped the Taliban consolidate their grip on the area. Other militant groups followed in Baitullah’s footsteps. This deal had increased the appeal of the Taliban due to their enforcement of Sharia.

Baitullah Mehsud united the tribal Taliban groups under the banner of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in 2007 and shaped the contours of the Sharia system in the tribal areas. He combined all available militant resources including Punjab-based groups and developed connections with foreign militants.

The Lal Masjid saga in Islamabad was the second factor behind the transformation of militancy. It not only helped militants in the tribal areas win political and moral support but also linked their ideology to the broader Islamisation discourse in the country.

Until then, the religious political parties had been the sole custodians of this discourse in the country, but now the militants challenged them. The Swat peace agreement further strengthened their narrative of Islamisation.

Over time, tribal militancy has become a complex of diverse phenomena ranging from insurgency and acts of terrorism to extremist ideological, political and social national and global perspectives, which have been able to garner considerable support across the country.

What the militants fear the most is losing political and ideological legitimacy. Dialogue is a way to de-legitimise them.

As far as previous peace deals are concerned they are not relevant in the current circumstances as they were conceived from a very narrow military tactical perspective. Those deals should not be used as an excuse for not launching a comprehensive and broad-based dialogue with the militants.

The writer is a political analyst.