AFTER several days of sustained air strikes against militants’ hideouts in the tribal belt and adjacent settled areas, efforts by the government to engage the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in dialogue have resulted in a temporary truce.

While the development may have given people reason for optimism, the fact is this love-hate relationship entails dangerous consequences in the absence of steadfast political commitment to lead the country out of the present quagmire.

Dialogue for both sides is like a chess game — let’s play ‘talk, talk’. The first peace agreement with the militants in South Waziristan in 2004 culminated in much pomp and circumstance with photographs of military officials standing shoulder to shoulder with tribal elders and fearsome militant commanders.

With the military leadership the sole arbiter of defence policy at the time, not many people knew what was being cooked in the rugged mountains of the country’s strategic backyard.

The military used the media as a conduit for relaying claims that the country’s defence was in safe hands, and that the militants were as patriotic as other Pakistanis.

Back then, and even now, militancy in Fata was mainly considered an outcome of US presence in Afghanistan.

Hence the withdrawal of foreign forces was seen as a precondition to ending terrorism. This, as subsequent events have proved, was wishful thinking, whether born of complacency or an incorrect reading of the situation.

The military signed one agreement after another, but peace remained an illusion. On the contrary, the militants’ power and prestige transcended the boundaries of the tribal belt.

After Musharraf’s departure from the scene in 2008, the new civilian dispensation followed the same path, with the ANP government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa independently negotiating peace with the Swat Taliban, and claiming credit for undertaking a daunting task.

Although it maintained that all stakeholders were on board, the lack of consensus with the military, and even the central government, was clear.

Despite several rounds of talks in the full glare of the national and international media, the outcome was the same: a military operation.

Whether the ANP through its efforts succeeded in unmasking the militants’ true colours is debatable. What is clear is that the party failed to understand militancy beyond its surface manifestation in the gun-wielding insurgents.

In this, the progressive political forces have proved they are no different from the conservative state apparatus: both deal with militancy at face value.

Meanwhile, the Taliban strategy to occupy centre stage is undeniable. Every time they have entered into peace talks, talibanisation gained currency and appeared as an appealing option for the deprived and disgruntled elements of society.

In this situation, blithe disregard for public interest was visible in the way both sides announced their peace committees.

The media-savvy clerics representing the TTP and their media-friendly counterparts representing the government were chosen on the basis of their news value.

By successfully mediating the dialectics of their opposing messages, the government and the Taliban made the entire nation a part of the militant discourse.

Terrorism was replaced by the jargon of peace talks that, in turn, were further decontextualised in the official demand for a ceasefire: a win-win situation for both sides, assumed to be equal and legitimate.

What to make of the peace talks announced every now and then? The Taliban are trained only to pull a trigger.

Peace for them means a brief lull in fighting: a means to an end — if there is any. Talks provide them with time to relocate or regroup but also to mainstream their message.

On the government’s side, however, peace talks are an opportunity for political point scoring, one in which every negotiating party — the military and/or ruling political parties — has looked at peace through the prism of its narrow institutional interests.

In the past, if the military’s lack of coordination with the civilian leadership cost it victory over the militants in the battlefield, the lack of vision on the political dispensation’s part to address structural weaknesses has resulted in an environment conducive to the perpetuation of militancy.

Peace talks and military operations have been followed as the only options to engage militants but no heed was paid to improving material conditions responsible for the rise of militancy.

Militants in Swat swelled their ranks when deprived youths saw in Fazlullah a challenge to the exploitative judicial system and inept governance in the area.

Other than cosmetic measures, what changes were made to the judicial system in Swat once militants left in 2009? Why is there no response to press conferences by Swat residents whose prime irrigated land is being grabbed for establishing a military cantonment? What about growing public complaints against individual soldiers’ involvement in forced marriages and other unacceptable activities in Swat? Why have no judicial reforms been undertaken to punish the many jailed militants who committed heinous crimes against people in Fata and the settled districts?

In fact, peace talks have proved a convenient vehicle for political point-scoring and a reason to carry out military operations.

For over a decade such tactics have further perpetuated militancy by dividing public attention between the binaries of military operations and peace talks.

Given increasing public concerns, especially in militancy-hit areas, the political leadership must demonstrate sagacity and take measures to give people a reason to think along lines other than militancy.

The writer is a journalist.

syedirfanashraf@gmail.com

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