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Dual-track approach

February 23, 2014

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WE already know why he’s doing it, but little has been said about how he’s doing it. Nawaz. On talks. With the TTP. While fending off the boys.

Tawdry as the motives may be, the tactics are anything but. In fact, in quintessential Nawaz style, the seemingly stupid may actually be the rather clever.

Call it the dual-track approach.

To the TTP, Nawaz has indicated that he wants a deal, that a deal will be localised, that low-level violence in parts of the country is acceptable — both while a deal is being negotiated and perhaps even after — and that, if the TTP doesn’t bite, he’ll step aside and let the chips fall where they would.

With the army, Nawaz has acquiesced in the boys’ need to blow off some steam. So, limited retaliation. The tacit consent given to the army: TTP whacks you, you can hit back — but hitting back has to be calibrated, proportionate and limited.

Everyone’s so focused on all the time the TTP has bought itself that it’s easy to miss the other guy who’s bought himself a whole lot of time already: Nawaz. And it’s all down to the dual-track approach.

Slip on one of Nawaz’s waistcoats and let’s see the world as he sees it.

Much has been made about how the TTP has run circles around Nawaz and the futility of talks when the central TTP leadership can’t or won’t end militant violence.

All true enough. But what if you — Nawaz — know that neither you nor the boys have the ability to eliminate the threat? What then?

You settle for next best: managing the threat, containing the violence.

Even if TTP violence doesn’t end altogether, there’s a damn good reason for Nawaz to keep the talks option alive: the alternative to the TTP showing semi-restraint is the TTP showing no restraint.

Essentially, with talks: a few blasts and several killed; no talks: many blasts and a whole more killed.

Remember, the starting point is that you — Nawaz — know neither you nor the boys have the means or the ability to eliminate militancy. All you can do is manage the threat.

So, if talking talks buys you fewer attacks, you take it.

The problem — the next step — is that the cheek isn’t always yours to turn. If the TTP stuck to killing civilians in sporadic, semi-restrained violence, Nawaz could absorb the pressure.

But while the TTP violence is sporadic and semi-restrained, it’s not just directed at civilians. The uniformed lot are getting whacked too. And that makes a difference.

Keep that waistcoat on and turn to the boys.

You’ve got a handpicked chief, but he’s still a new chief. New chief has to show he’s tough, means business, is on the side of the boys — and isn’t his predecessor. Like Kayani did early on with the whole year-of-the-soldier business and resolute action.

That’s Raheel taken care of. But there’s more.

There are two constituencies the boys care about above all else: the rank and file and public opinion. If the boys are whacked and they don’t respond, they look weak. Weakness is not a perception the boys can countenance. They have to respond.

You — Nawaz — know this. So you let them respond. But only to the extent that it doesn’t make the boys look weak. I.E. limited retaliation.

That’s the other track of the dual track. It ain’t pretty, fuggedabout ideal, but it’s working: the dual-track approach has bought Nawaz time and it can keep on buying him time.

It works because it offers something to all things.

Reading between the lines, the TTP will have figured out that it has a partner in perpetuation — if TTP doesn’t hurt Nawaz and his political interests too much, Nawaz won’t squeeze the TTP and its interests too hard.

Reading between the lines, Nawaz has figured out that neither does the TTP want a decisive fight nor does the state know how to fight and win one.

Reading between the lines, the army has figured out that Nawaz will let them defend their core interests — reputation above all — as long as they don’t jeopardise his — Punjab.

In quintessential Nawaz style, the seemingly stupid transforms into the rather clever.

Now take off that Nawaz waistcoat. It’s not all that clever.

Because his goals are narrow — manage the TTP threat and contain militant violence — and his resolve weak, Nawaz has contrived to leave himself at the mercy of the other sides.

Limited retaliation works as one track of the dual-track approach as long as it stays limited. But Nawaz isn’t the one deciding what limited means. The boys with the toys are.

Need the risks be spelled out?

Either deliberately — because the agenda is different — or unintentionally — because boys with toys understand ‘limited’ differently to civilians — limited retaliation could easily slide into just disproportionate enough to provoke the TTP into abandoning its own calibrated violence.

Suddenly, it’s all-out war and Nawaz is left scratching his head.

Or, encouraged by Nawaz playing footsie, the TTP miscalculates what level of violence it can get away with. The problem with practitioners of violence is that they either get sloppy or greedy.

A TTP hit too far or a TTP hit too big occurs — and limited retaliation is chucked out the window. It’s all-out war and Nawaz is left scratching his head.

So, dual track works, until it doesn’t. Like everything else in this place, really.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

cyril.a@gmail.com