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Good intentions aren’t enough

February 06, 2014

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A STRONG desire for an end to terrorism should not lead anyone to underestimate the difficulties that the negotiating teams constituted by the prime minister and the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are likely to face because securing peace can sometimes be a more challenging task than making war.

There is no doubt that public unity in support of negotiations cannot be taken for granted. The prime minister assumed personal responsibility for the initiative and one wonders whether it would not have been better to take at least the leaders of the various parties in parliament into confidence.

He prefaced his decision to appoint a committee with a stern warning to the TTP. Describing them as terrorists on the “other side” he declared that their activities could no longer be tolerated. However, he was prepared to give them a chance by accepting their offer of talks. This was obviously meant to reassure the people that Islamabad was not speaking from a position of weakness. Whether the TTP sees it that way is a different matter.

The mandate of the official committee is not clear. The committee is supposed “to carry the dialogue process forward.” That could mean anything from preparing the ground for substantive negotiations to securing agreement on issues in contention. Nothing has been said about the committee’s competence to accept any conditions the Taliban might put before agreeing to discuss substantive issues. Quite a few hurdles can be seen at this preliminary stage. The Taliban’s keenness to have drone strikes stopped and get their men released from detention and Islamabad’s desire for cessation of terrorist activity altogether are some of the easily visible stumbling blocks.

The fiction that all the four members of the official committee are equal is already fading except for the notion that each member has a single vote and that there is no provision for a casting vote.

Matters such as the authority to convene the committee’s meetings cannot be left undecided. Already Mr Irfan Siddiqui is being described as the coordinator and his being an adviser to the prime minister could create an impression in Taliban ranks at least that the committee has more authority than Islamabad may have invested it with.

It will not be fair to comment on the credentials of the members of the committee and they should be judged strictly by their performance. Their views on the Taliban phenomenon and their inclinations are, however, known. If the Taliban cannot do business with this committee then they cannot have a deal with anyone.

The TTP perhaps surprised the government by naming frontmen from outside their duly recognised ranks. They also surprised their supporters in Pakistan’s political parties by giving the Lal Masjid custodian precedence over them.

The TTP has obviously tried to score a point by demonstrating its ability to find counsel from amongst people supposed to be on “this side” of the conflict. Both Mr Imran Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rehman were embarrassed at what appeared to be a derogation of their bipartisan status and chose to step aside. Still the dialogue between the two committees may look to many as an in-house affair.

While the two negotiating teams look at the possibilities of “taking the dialogue process forward”, it is fair to assume that promoters on both sides are already busy exploring the possible contours of a compromise. That is the most crucial part of the present exercise.

The government has unduly emphasised the Taliban’s acceptance of the Constitution as the basic condition for a settlement. Unless they choose to deny that the tribal area is a part of Pakistani territory, albeit administered differently than the rest of the state, the Taliban should have little difficulty in meeting this demand.

They can say that they respect the Constitution to the extent the state has applied it to them. They cannot be blamed for not extending all provisions of the Constitution to their areas.

Pakistan is in no position to satisfy the Taliban demand for an end to drone attacks. Syed Munawar Hasan has given an indication of the Taliban thinking that in the event of refusal by the United States to stop drone raids Pakistan should snap all ties with it.

This will be like asking an addict of 60 years’ standing to stop taking drugs immediately. The prime minister’s back room advisers will not find it easy to tackle this question.

An issue on which complete clarity is required is the territorial limits of the bargain. The Taliban, if they can prove that they enjoy the trust of the population of Fata, may be free to discuss the system of administration appropriate for their special relationship with the state but they have no right to tell Islamabad how the rest of the country is to be governed.

The toughest task for the official negotiators will be to tell the Taliban of the limits to their cultural autonomy in Fata. The creation of workable political, administrative and judicial institutions in Fata can be discussed but in that area too the government will have to take a stand that the basic rights of the vulnerable sections of society, especially women and minorities, cannot be compromised.

The tendency to run down everyone who raises questions about the scope and justification of negotiations with the Taliban will cause more harm than good because good intentions alone cannot pave the road in the right direction.