Back to square one

30 Jan 2014

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UNEXPECTEDLY, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went to parliament yesterday and spoke from the floor of the National Assembly about his government’s plans to combat terrorism and militancy. Then, in line with much of the hype and speculation of recent days, he proceeded to deliver a speech that appeared to be heading towards the only logical conclusion: the dialogue option was being discarded in favour of the use of force against the TTP. But, befitting a prime minister who is giving new meaning to the terms secretiveness and holding one’s cards close to one’s chest, Mr Sharif sprang a surprise that virtually no one saw coming. The government is appointing a four-member committee to give the dialogue option one more chance, the prime minister announced.

If the decision itself was a complete surprise, less surprising were the details: there were none. No deadlines, no red lines, no clarity about who will be reached out to, no specifics about the mandate of the four-member committee — virtually nothing other than the old platitudes about sincere efforts and genuine intentions on the part of the government. Mr Sharif did say that it was unacceptable for the TTP to continue its campaign of violence if the dialogue option is to remain on the table, but, given the litany of attacks since September that the prime minister himself recounted, why is the TTP now supposed to take the prime minister seriously on this count? If all the TTP violence since the dialogue option was endorsed by the APC last September has not taken talks off the table as yet, why would the government wrap up its brand new initiative were a few — even many — more attacks to occur in the days ahead?

Not only does the latest reworking of the government’s anti-militancy strategy look even less like a strategy than the dithering of the past few months, it raises some fundamental questions about the PML-N’s approach to politics and policymaking. Of the four members tasked with helping the government achieve what is by the government’s own admission its principal policy concern, not a single one is a politician. That is a quite remarkable, if implicit, indictment of the PML-N leadership’s trust and faith in the overall political class. And what of the PML-N parliamentarians themselves, who were summoned to a special parliamentary party meeting at the start of the week and whose opinion was sought on what the government needs to do now to address the terror threat? Not only was the general thrust of the PML-N parliamentarians’ advice ignored, they were clearly not even informed of their own leadership’s plans to try and reinvigorate the dialogue option. That hardly bodes well for the transparency Mr Sharif promised in the dialogue process with the TTP.