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Failure of the war

February 28, 2013


IT is ‘APC’ season again. Karachi residents associate the acronym with armoured personnel carriers that contain and occasionally protect besieged policemen.

The political APCs on the other hand contain besieged politicians who are hoping for occasional protection. Take it from the Lyari cops in Karachi — if you underplay what you are up against, APCs don’t work.

The all-party conference emerged as a tool when the region was ruled through Westminster, redundant now that we have a parliament. Since the political parties outside parliament, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf and Jamaat-i-Islami, did not attend the Awami National Party APC anyway, all the parallel platform did was reduce the representation to core power elites of already elitist political parties. Consensus-building tools to directly involve the public would have helped more.

Deliberating on Pakistani Taliban negotiations without consulting women who are more than half the population is not just exclusionary but criminal neglect, since they are directly an aggrieved party. This is the cue for routine responses pointing out that the women of Swat supported the Taliban’s rise to power. But taking that at face value is akin to a modern-day diagnosis of drapetomania.

Drapetomania was a mental illness diagnosed by American physician Samuel Cartwright in the mid-19th century, affecting only black slaves. The chief symptom of the disease was described as the uncontrollable urge to run away, blocking off the exploitative context in which the trend emerged.

Across Swat, women say Fazlullah offered them the opportunity to become actors shaping their environment. His earlier sermons insisted women were stakeholders who would play an important role in creating an Islamic society that would be a conduit for justice and representation.

Once the Taliban started torture and beheadings, women were terrorised. The Taliban’s violence against women and their misogynist ideology are well-known if not well-documented. Instead of a drapetomanic pathologising of support for the Taliban, we need to deconstruct it to see what it represented. For women in Swat, it was the promise of inclusion.

Insurgents everywhere target the state and its institutions, but the Taliban have openly taken responsibility for bomb blasts and suicide attacks leading to mass casualties among ordinary civilians in markets and mosques across the country. The current headcount of terrorism victims in Pakistan is estimated to be between 45,000 to 50,000 people. Each has a story of unspeakable anguish. And now we want to negotiate with the perpetrators. On what?

Nothing in Pakistan is black and white. The ANP contradictions — of the party with the highest number of the Taliban’s victims proposing peace talks with them — read in context warrant some sympathy. In private conversations, people across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa state their firm belief that the army both colludes with and protects as well as attacks the Taliban based on its calculus of expedience, and had it wanted it could have finished off the militants in the decade since the ‘war on terror’ began.

People lace this narrative with specific examples, such as the pitched battle Pir Samiullah fought against the Taliban in Matta. He had raised a force of 500 people after promises of state support but when he needed backup during five days of continued assault, official assistance never came. Not only were his supporters massacred, his dead body was exhumed and hung from a tree for four days and his village burned down. There are numerous such accounts of tribal lashkars and aman jirgas promised state protection and then abandoned.

If there is truth in the claim of the security apparatus’ double game, then it leaves the ANP in the untenable position of the frontline party with cadres routinely assassinated in a war it cannot win without state support, which it doubts it has, hence its push for reconciliation. If such claims are not true, then beyond Swat, the security apparatus has not done anything to warrant people’s confidence.

Public criminal prosecution of Taliban accused of brutalities would go far in restoring people’s trust in the system to deliver justice. Instead, peace talks will result in the imprisoned ones getting released.

No democratic dispensation can sustain high levels of violence against civilians. Without public support for operations, negotiations are the only alternative. A previous attempt at peace talks resulted in Sufi Muhammad declaring human rights, politicians, the constitution and democracy itself as against Islam. But is there public support for negotiations? In return for ceasefire, what is it that the Taliban are being offered?

The Taliban will be negotiating from a position of strength, and that in itself is an indictment of the army and the intelligence agencies and a spectacular failure of the ‘war on terror’. The Taliban have not been weakened enough for them to bargain for only clemency or amnesty, and will place demands for systemic change. And they have less legitimacy than even Tahirul Qadri to do so. Let’s hear that the constitutional guarantees will not be overridden, human rights will not be eroded, freedom of cultural and personal expression will be protected, there will be no further roll-back on freedoms of minorities and women’s concerns will be paramount, as a prerequisite to even heading to the negotiating table. Then see if they turn up.

These peace talks connect to what is unfolding across the border. It is simplistic optimism to assume that the warriors will either leave in an exodus or put down their guns and pick up their cropping tools once the Americans leave Afghanistan in 2014. The security establishment and seasoned politicians know that. The rest of the citizens better fasten their seatbelts.

The writer conducts research and analysis in the social and development sector.