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Talks with the enemy

February 25, 2013

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A MULTI-PARTY conference called by the Awami National Party recently endorsed talks with “law-abiding” Pakistani Taliban. The topic was picked up by the media. From what I could tell, the mood seemed to be amenable to giving the idea a shot.

Then came the Quetta tragedy. The media’s tone changed completely. The conference’s wisdom is now being questioned and parties like the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf who have called for talks with the Pakistani Taliban for long are being put on the mat. The question is an emotive variant of: ‘how can we talk with those who carry out such heinous acts?’

Let us first be clear on what we are talking about.

The issue of talks has come up in the context of the insurgency in the northwest where the Pakistani Taliban have fought for control of territory against the Pakistani state with some success. This implies that we are approaching the Pakistani Taliban as an insurgent force (even though they use terrorism as a tool as well), distinct from the many other purely terrorist outfits. Otherwise, our purview for talks would have been much broader to include the likes of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), Sipah-i-Sahaba, Sipah-i-Muhammad, etc.

The LJ-perpetrated incident in Quetta then has little to do with the idea of talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Second, an objection to talks on the basis of the insurgents’ past violent actions is comical. By definition, when states talk to insurgents, they are talking to people who have committed heinous crimes against it. That is the whole point: to talk them out of violence. So the common objections to talking with the Taliban are off the mark.

In deciding whether to approach the Taliban is a good idea, the calculus has to revolve around: (i) who are we talking to; (ii) what are they likely to ask for; and (iii) what is the most we can offer them? Talks will potentially be worthwhile if we can answer the first question clearly and find at least some overlap between the second and third. Otherwise not.

So who do we wish to talk to?

The multi-party conference’s endorsement of talks with the Taliban who respect the law of the land is an oxymoron. You can’t possibility respect the Pakistani constitution if you are part of a proscribed organisation and have been fighting the state.

But let us be a bit more liberal in interpreting this: parties like the PTI correctly point out that the Pakistani Taliban conglomerate is not a monolith. They say we should talk to the amenable ones — read, the less violent or least recalcitrant actors. If so, then this is about talking to the periphery.

Fair enough. We can talk to the periphery and see if they are willing to rejoin the mainstream. But this is neither here nor there for two reasons.

One, the periphery won’t be able to dent the overall momentum of the conglomerate’s activities. Two, no one is stopping the periphery from joining the mainstream even now. There are many who have broken off from the Taliban ranks and have been allowed to live within the framework of Pakistani laws (as long as they were not part of the core of the movement and were not involved in major attacks).

To be of any consequence then, the initiative has to be about pacifying the core of the Pakistani Taliban. A formal politically backed process makes little sense otherwise. Can we pull this off?

The answer depends on what we are willing to put on offer for the Taliban. If it is a demand for them to give up violence, lay down arms, and ask for forgiveness, it’s a non-starter. It will defy all benchmarks for successful talks between states and insurgents.

Insurgents will accept your demands when they are the defeated party and face obliteration if they resist any longer. The states will cede territory or allow power to insurgents if the result on the ground is the opposite. In stalemate situations, successful talks will necessarily entail give and take.

Our situation can most accurately be defined as a stalemate. The Pakistani Taliban have fought the state for almost a decade. They have failed to defeat it even in their strongholds but more importantly, they have not lost either. They have maintained their clout in Fata and seem to be raising their head again after facing major setbacks since 2009-10. The Pakistani state has fought them courageously but is visibly bruised and battered. Incidentally, this is why we are even thinking of talking to them in the first place.

Before broaching formal talks then, the state needs to be absolutely clear on what the Taliban’s demands are and whether it is willing to concede on any of them.

We don’t have any clear indication from the TTP except that their demeanour is not that of a defeated party. They are thus most likely to put forth maximalist demands: allow them to rule the roost in their strongholds; impose Sharia in and beyond their strongholds; remove military presence from much of Fata and the adjacent territories; and force the US to end drone strikes or break ties with Washington.

The state should negotiate seriously if it is willing to concede on some of these demands. But if we want to stay away from providing them a legitimised “Wild West” where the Pakistani state will lose all control and if we want to avoid remaining a persistent worry for the world, this is a bad idea.

Giving in to these demands will only strengthen the Taliban further. In all likelihood, the state will have to show up again with its military might a few weeks, months, or years later to confront a much more defiant Pakistani Taliban.

Let us talk about talks with the Taliban only after the military has packed the punch successfully enough to leave no doubt as to who the winner is. Short of that, the TTP’s demands are likely to be unacceptable for any Pakistani who wants to be part of a moderate, progressive polity.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.

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