We have now seen just what troubles are involved in talks with the Taliban. Days after the group took responsibility for an attack that killed Maj-Gen Sanaullah Niazi and two other army men in Upper Dir, bringing a measured but angry warning from General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the Tehreek-e-Taliban has said no approach for dialogue has been made, and the war is still on. The political leaders who had, at the recent All-Parties Conference called for peace must be feeling quite small.
This is the ninth failed attempt to talk to the Taliban. It was the collapse of the last such effort in Swat in 2009 which led to the PPP government giving orders for the military to move in. Each new ceasefire called over the years appears to have given the militants time to re-group, strengthen their ranks and welcome back freed fighters. We have already seen these scenes in the town of Mir Ali, as Taliban members welcomed back six men swapped for two Frontier Corps personnel kidnapped some months before from South Waziristan.
Let’s look at the immediate contours of the teetering talks process. Mian Nawaz Sharif has been aware for a long time that the security problem has to be dealt with if he is to have any hope of whipping a staggering economy into shape. If he fails to do so, his government, supported strongly by traders and the business community, is unlikely to succeed. The PML-N has been selling its agenda of dialogue as a part of its campaign, telling an essentially conservative audience based mainly in Punjab that there was no other option.
The idea that the Taliban are ‘our own’ people and we should, therefore, not be fighting them has also been forcefully put forward. By this token, since the killers who gun down targeted victims in Karachi, the rapists who assault small girls or the gangs involved in sectarian violence are also ‘our people’ perhaps we should talk to them too. Possibly they could be persuaded to agree only to kill a certain number of people, or rape only victims aged over 18. This after all is what was being done with the Taliban, and as supporters of the process argue, some ‘give and take’ is required to reach any compromise.
The APC called on the issue also remained vague about what was to be ‘given’, putting forward no definite outline and not mentioning who the talks would be held with. To be fair to Nawaz Sharif, his economic concerns are genuine. There can be no growth in the face of terrorism on the scale perpetrated by the Taliban. It is understood it was this argument that was used to win the military over – how completely we do not know.
Just a short while back COAS Gen Kayani had warned that terrorists could not be spoken to, and a meeting of top military commanders last year, in a major tweaking of the old national security paradigm, had agreed that home-bred terrorism was the biggest threat the nation faced. Kayani has now made his position clearer still. PML-N insiders say that thinkers within their party had advised Nawaz Sharif to include the PTI chief closely in the effort so that if there is any failure the PTI cannot sit on the sidelines and point accusatory fingers.
But as the ‘list’ of ‘demands’ put forward by the Taliban materialised, including an amnesty, the release of jailed members, the lifting of death sentences, withdrawal of troops from areas of conflict and Shariah law – presumably as per their own interpretation of it – through courts in tribal areas, it became clear that accepting even some of these demands would amount to further eroding the writ of a state that has less and less of it left in the first place anyway. Talking with terrorists leads to perils of this kind.
While assertions were made after the APC of full unity among all regarding the dialogue, there is evidence of some rift within the ranks. The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, has spoken of ‘elements’ trying to sabotage the process. We wonder who he was referring to and if there was ever in fact really agreement across the board on the issue of talking to the Taliban. Subsequent events make things clearer.
At this time most of our sympathies should lie with the people who live under Taliban control or threat of control. It is easy to sit in Punjab or other parts of the country and make sweeping statements about how best to proceed. It is not so easy to do so for those who have faced the full wrath of a ruthless enemy, capable of killing, flogging, maiming, burning or torturing in all kinds of ways. While it is correct that people in tribal areas seek, more than anything else, peace so that they can return to their normal activities, they also yearn for some sense of security and the ability to live without uncertainty. This applies as much to women, the silent 50 percent from the tribal areas, whose voices are heard too infrequently in the equation.
Posters in Bannu warning single women that living alone is an ‘immoral’ act and other messages of a similar nature given out constantly have not been missed. People from the Tirah Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also speak with anguish and anger of the scale of violence the Taliban have inflicted. These acts cannot be neglected.
Essentially, the Taliban represent a force unable to see any rationality. One way or the other, their top leadership needs to be taken away from our landscape and efforts then made to initiate a programme of development and change which can rehabilitate and reform the others who form a part of their ranks or offer them support. This should now be our priority.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. Email: kamilahyat@hotmail. com