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Capitulation

March 03, 2013

TALIBAN, two; politicians, zero. Not a bad start to the year if you’re an anti-state militant. You’ve drawn the enemy’s blood repeatedly and yet somehow turned its attention towards peace talks.

In fact, the TTP has turned counter-insurgency on its head: it’s the state that is supposed to pound the militants until they are left with no choice but to drag their bloodied and battered selves to the negotiating table — not the other way round.

Nobody really thinks the TTP wants peace. Neither the maulanas talking peace at their APC nor the secular ANP talking peace at its APC believe it.

How can they? They know the Pakistani Taliban too well: some because they’re cut from the same cloth; others because the Taliban have risen from their midst.

So what’s going on?

Think of it as pre-election posturing. And arguably the Taliban’s greatest victory.

Start with the politicians. Elections mean a surfeit of targets: politicians campaigning; voters turning up at rallies and at polling booths; local influentials running around trying to stitch up winning coalitions.

If you’re a politician, it’s precisely the time you don’t want to be the focus of the TTP’s attention.

Fata is a new prize and an old complication: with political parties permitted to field candidates for the first time, the politicians have to get out there and fight a new game — in a land that has politically and socially been turned upside down by a decade of insurgency.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is and has been an electoral patchwork and is again shaping up to be intensely competitive come election time.

Neither in Fata nor in KP can politicians and political parties take anything for granted the next few months. But the already hard, political, slog becomes infinitely more complicated if you’re being walloped by the Taliban.

So it’s time to buy some time.

The Taliban says it wants peace, we’ll give them all the talks about talks they can handle, the politicians are thinking.

Maybe the Taliban will bite, maybe they won’t, but it’s worth a shot with a general election on the cards.

Who knows, maybe instead of 20 suicide bombings, 10 devastating attacks and five high-profile assassinations during campaign season, there’ll be five suicide bombings, three devastating attacks and one high-profile assassination, the politician willing to sue for peace is saying privately.

What about leadership? What about rallying the public against the greatest danger to state and society since state and society contrived to lose half the country some four decades ago? What about doing the right thing?

Pfft. It’s election time.

Nothing matters more to a politician than winning an election. Not in India, not in Italy, not in Israel, not in the US. Why should Pakistan be any different?

Unspoken Rule No 1: you can’t win an election if you’re dead, so better to live to cower another day.

Now, what are the Taliban up to? What’s this business of attacking ruthlessly while talking peace?

That the Taliban have proved to be fairly un-strategic and not very bright has been to Pakistan’s enduring luck over the past decade or so.

Swat, for example, became both the apogee and nadir of Taliban power because they weren’t patient enough, or smart enough, to consolidate the gains there after Nizam-i-Adl had been ceded by the state.

Instead, they spilled out into neighbouring districts and tore apart the artifice that Swat was a localised problem with a localised solution that the state had so cravenly helped the Taliban construct.

But now the Taliban have conjured up a masterstroke: inserting themselves into the political course and with it, driving a stake through the possibility of the elusive societal ‘consensus’ against militancy emerging.

Count the ways in which the Taliban have racked up wins with the devilishly timed offer of talks.

One, the political class is once again being assembled into pro-Taliban and anti-Taliban camps.

Since Swat and South Waziristan, talk of talks was the remit of the extreme right and Taliban Khan — and both were hammered for it. While public opinion had never come close to coalescing around decisive military action, the idea of talks had faded as the option mainstream politics preferred.

Now, with elections upon us and politicians needing to fan out among the people, the Taliban have dangled a carrot: go soft on us and we’ll turn our cross-hairs elsewhere.

Cue politicians falling over themselves to grab the Taliban carrot.

Two, the old confusion in society and the media has been resurrected.

There was no ‘Malala moment’ last October because there is no coherent counter-narrative to militancy and extremism — at least no counter-narrative that has widespread traction.

But public suspicion of the Taliban’s goals, if not their ideology, had grown to the point that uncomfortable questions were being asked, loudly and aggressively on TV and in the street.

Now, because inherent in the idea of talks is reasonableness, the creeping image of monstrousness that the Taliban had begun to acquire has been swiftly halted by the offer of talks.

Yes, they still kill and maim, the public and media can once again debate, but perhaps there is some humanity in the Taliban after all.

Third, the civil-military divide is wider than ever.

The army high command says, we can’t go for the kill unless the politicians back us and the public supports us.

Assume — and this is a fairly big assumption — that the army means it.

The politicians are falling over themselves to grab the Taliban carrot. The right-wing in the media is giving John Lennon a run for his money. And society is slipping back towards the default state of Pakistani nature: confusion.

Where does that leave the consensus, political and social, the army demands? Nowhere.

Game, set and the first half of 2013 to the Taliban.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm