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Soft on the enemy

Whither the much-talked-about talks with the Pakistani Taliban? There is no sign yet of them taking off. But even if the talks happen it would be more like talks between the victor and the vanquished. While the national leadership pleads for mercy, the militants dictate the modalities of the surrender to the state.

With no will to fight, the Sharif administration has already conceded too much ground to the Taliban with extremely dangerous consequences for national security, and it may not be easy to retrieve the situation. The latest escalation in violence, including the killing of a senior Khyber Pakhtunkhwa minister, makes the intention of the militants even clearer — talks but only on their terms. It was frightening to watch Hakeemullah Mehsud on BBC recently, arrogantly justifying the killing of those who do not subscribe to the Taliban’s retrogressive worldview.

“We have targeted those who are with the infidels, America, and we will continue to target them,” the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief declared. For him, whoever is not with them is an infidel and deserves to be killed. His triumphant tenor and newfound confidence was shocking. Just a few months ago, the TTP chief was afraid for his own safety.

The group was dealt a serious blow after the death of Waliur Rehman, the deputy commander of the TTP, in a drone strike. Surely, the inaction of the government has given a new lifeline to his supporters. In a more recent interview, the TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said that they would never engage in talks under the Pakistani Constitution since it enshrines democracy, which according to him is a secular and un-Islamic system. He also wants the Sharia’s enforcement in the country. Are these preconditions acceptable to the state? They will be tantamount to legitimising a Taliban dictatorship. Emboldened by the government’s dithering and the defeatist approach of political leaders such as Imran Khan, the TTP is now threatening to eliminate journalists and intellectuals who are challenging its tyranny.

What is most appalling is the complete silence of the political leaders over these death threats. But it must not surprise us since these leaders did the same when the militants targeted the activists of the Awami National Party during the May 11 elections, virtually pushing it out of the poll race. In fact, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) to some extent owes its electoral success in KP to the compromise it had made with the Taliban. It is also fear that drives the PTI’s current pro-TTP policy. But what Imran Khan and his supporters do not understand is that appeasement may not protect them for long.

The message was clear when the militants murdered provincial law minister Israrullah Gandapur in a suicide attack on Eid day. He was the third provincial assembly member to be killed by the militants in the past few months. It is now several weeks since the all-party conference mandated the government to initiate the so-called peace talks with the militants. But there is still no clear strategy for negotiations. There is huge ambiguity over whom the administration intends to talk to. The TTP is a loose group of more than 30 factions and each one has its own views on the negotiations. Moreover they are not bound by the decisions taken by Hakeemullah Mehsud. Most TTP groups have publicly rejected the government’s peace offer. It is not surprising that different factions accepted responsibility for the recent terrorist attacks in KP. For instance, the Peshawar church attack was carried out by the TTP’s Mohmand branch which is totally opposed to any peace talks with the Pakistani state. Imran Khan has come out with a bizarre demand of allowing the outlawed militant network to open its office in Pakistan to clear the way for dialogue.

The sheer ridiculousness of the suggestion aside, it is not clear whether the PTI chief wants offices for all the TTP factions. Then, there are also numerous splinter factions of outlawed Pakistani militant groups operating from North Waziristan. Known as the Punjabi Taliban, they may be cooperating with the TTP in carrying out terrorist attacks, but they have their own specific agendas too. One of the most powerful Punjabi Taliban leaders, Asmatullah Muawiya, is, perhaps, the only one who has publicly supported the government’s peace offer. This positive response apparently came only after the prime minister suspended the execution of two members of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi convicted on several murder charges. Muawiya had threatened to target the members of the Sharif family and to unleash terrorist attacks in Punjab.

There cannot be long-term peace with the government buckling under terrorist threats. I recently watched a speech of Muawiya on video, on the killing of Osama bin Laden. In a most vitriolic diatribe against the Pakistani security forces, the militant leader vowed to carry out the mission of the late Al Qaeda chief. Does the Sharif government understand the ramifications of dealing with Al Qaeda affiliates and those responsible for sectarian killings? Not only would peace deals with such groups clear the way for the Talibanisation of Pakistan, they would also be dangerous for regional security.

More importantly, the move would reinforce the suspicion of the international community about Pakistan’s unwillingness to fight against violent extremism. Indeed, there is very little hope of achieving peace through dialogue with the militants. But more worrisome is whether the administration has an alternative plan to deal with the worsening security situation. The choice is not between dialogue and a military operation. The state must use all options to enforce the rule of law. No state can allow its writ to be challenged by armed groups, or a parallel system to operate. What is needed are measures to strengthen the civilian law-enforcement and intelligence networks to deal with the menace of militant violence. The government has to act more firmly if it wants to eliminate terrorism in Pakistan. The threat cannot wither away by romancing the enemy.

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