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The year of dialogue

March 16, 2014


THERE’S stuff they’ll tell you and there’s stuff they won’t. Usually, it’s what they won’t tell you that’s more interesting.

Publicly, the army is all ‘we can fix this, let us do this’ on blunting the TTP threat militarily in NWA. The government, meanwhile, is all ‘talks can work’ on blunting the TTP threat through dialogue.

Oddly enough, if you factor in what they aren’t saying publicly, it’s the government that’s got the stronger case right now.

Privately, what’s being said about the boys and what the boys are saying are, in the main, four things. One, good at counter-insurgency? Swat and South Waziristan are presented as the two main successes. Right.

The guy who led the insurgency against which the boys had so much success in 2009 is now the insurgent-in-chief of the TTP nationally. And, four and a half years on, a third of SWA has yet to be cleared, forget held.

Two, how many days are there in a week and weeks in a month? The original assessment proffered by the boys to knock the TTP off its NWA perch was days going on to two weeks.

Then, two weeks became four. As more information filtered in, four became six. This was happening in real time, as the pols sat down with the uniforms to debate the options. Certainty, it quickly became apparent, only extended to public pronouncements.

It wasn’t just the timeline though. Ultimately, clearing isn’t the problem, stabilisation is: you pummel the TTP, chase them out of NWA, then what? Six months later, a year later, what happens?

Three, the boys weren’t being entirely honest about the numbers or identities of the folk they’ve snatched up and kept tucked away.

Once the TTP made prisoners a public issue and the pols caught on that the boys weren’t telling them everything they knew, the suspicions hardened. What else were the boys hiding?

Four, leading on from three, nobody but nobody truly believes the old army dog has really learned new tricks. It’s not just the Afghan Taliban or Gul Bahadur or the Waliur Rehman friendlies.

It’s little things, stuff that folk barely dare whisper, strange bits of information picked up by the civilian antennae and noses on the ground that have made them blanch.

Is it just consorting with the enemy to keep tabs on them or something more? The pols can only guess what it means and how it all adds up.

Of course, the pols are a slippery lot too, well versed in telling a fib or two of their own.

The TTP is violating the ceasefire — and the government knows it.

It’s not just the blasts that have made the news. In areas that TV cameras and public opinion do not particularly care about, bodies have continued to turn up. Localised, low-level insurgent violence — TTP violence — is ongoing.

But take the blasts that have made the news too. Assume that the TTP is not lying when it says that it has not ordered the bombings and that splinter groups are creating problems.

OK, but what are the mechanics and logistics of an attack that grabs headlines? The bombers are rarely locals, they come from outside. Even the most rudimentary of attacks needs some local knowledge: about the target, the best route to approach the target without getting caught, a safe house to stay in overnight.

Someone has to drop off the suicide vest or bomb, given that bomber and bomb rarely, if ever, come from the same place or travel together.

What kind of splinter group has that kind of capacity and reach? None.

They necessarily would need to borrow resources from a bigger, more established entity. That entity is the TTP.

The government knows this, but it’s an inconvenient truth. So the public fiction of splinter groups that can’t be stopped is being hawked.

Yet, for all its fibs and disingenuity, the PML-N has pulled a very real rabbit out of its hat: it’s got the TTP to declare a ceasefire.

Clearly, it’s not a total ceasefire, but it is significant — and the TTP is serious about continuing it. Why is a secret that only Nisar knows the answer to, but it’s real and it’s given the government both space and time for the dialogue option.

So what next?

Again, the public pronouncements and the private assessments diverge — a lot.

Decisive stage? Result-oriented? Final committee? Hardly.

Privately, the guess is: six to eight weeks, then a further reconstitution of the committee. The trickiest part will be to keep the ceasefire alive while trying to parse the good TTP from the bad TTP.

At the moment, that looks like the Mehsuds in Waziristan and the Afghan-based TTP lot. But what if the TTP closes ranks instead of allowing sections of itself to be lured into the government’s embrace?

Too conveniently, the speculation about the reconcilables versus irreconcilables inside the TTP tends to split them up according to the degree of antipathy the army feels towards them.

A strategy based partially on the red lines of one side instead of the realities on the other side may be no strategy at all.

Still, if the government has its way, there will be no operation in 2014. And, right now, it looks like the government may get its way.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm