Here’s an incomplete sampling of the people the TTP and its ideological cohorts have targeted this month: school children, polio workers, law-enforcement officials, Shias, worshippers, journalists, and a Spanish cyclist.
The temptation is to declare this a resurgence in militant attacks and slam Maulana Fazlullah as an even more ruthless practitioner of violence than his predecessor Hakeemullah Mehsud. That would not strictly be accurate. The TTP’s targets have always been wide-ranging and its commitment to violence unquestionable. Even Sunni males, like say Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who practise -- or at least preach -- the same harsh brand of religion as the TTP can be on the hit list for uttering a stray word or two. Take someone like Maulana Samiul Haq, a man who expresses pride at being a godfather of the Taliban. Now that he has allowed his grandchild to be administered polio drops (the horror!), he too can expect to find himself in the crosshairs of the TTP.
When trying to concoct a strategy for dealing with the TTP, its essential nature must never be forgotten. It is possible to come up with nuanced strategies for dealing with it but not if it means ignoring the undeniable fact that just about every person in the country is someone the TTP would prefer dead.
The PML-N government doesn’t do nuance. It really doesn’t do much of anything. The party rode into power on the promise of solving the power crisis, reducing inflation and sound economic management. The TTP didn’t figure much into its thinking, probably because its Punjab-centric electoral strategy didn’t require it. The province has been less severely hit than others and many of the groups that are now part of the TTP are former allies of the PML-N. I guess the party feels hating on old friends would be bad manners.
Once in power, Nawaz Sharif and his people felt like they had to come up with something to deal with the Taliban, but not before they bought themselves time with a leisurely delay. First, there was the time-wasting All-Parties Conference, which sought that mythical beast known as consensus. The consensus was that there should be negotiations with the TTP.
Of course, all the APC drama was unnecessary. Everyone already knew that the PTI favoured talks. Despite that, the APC was delayed while Imran Khan went to England and saved endangered elephants with Prince Charles. The PPP’s and ANP’s stance on negotiations is less clear but they offered support to the idea at the APC, though we can be sure they will run away from it should negotiations not work.
Negotiations, we can be sure, will not ‘work’ in the way that the PML-N and PTI have said that they will. Imran Khan seems to seriously believe a negotiated settlement that involves the withdrawal of armed forces from the tribal areas will lead to eternal peace. Nawaz Sharif is not as deluded. He knows that talking about talking is a way of buying time and making it seem like he has a plan while the real plan is being formed.
In that sense, Nawaz Sharif is playing an even more dangerous game than the hopelessly-naïve Imran. He has held up negotiations as a solution rather than a tactic. In doing so, he has purposely ignored the million dollar question: what do we hope to be the outcome of negotiations?
This is not a question any politician wants to answer since by their very nature negotiations can only work if there is give and take. We know what we want to take from the TTP. An enforceable pledge that it will renounce violence would be nice for starters. But is anyone in the PML-N or PTI willing to answer what they will give in return? Would we be willing to recognise the TTP dominion over most or all of the tribal areas? How about banning all vaccinations, or foreigners, or religious minorities?
The government may have touted peace talks as necessary but it wants to ignore the uncomfortable truth that those talks, even if they lead to peace, will involve sacrificing and selling out a whole lot of Pakistani citizens.
The government has also never been clear on who it wants to talk to. The TTP is not a monolith. There is no one leader who can represent this conglomerate of terror and make any promises that everyone else will abide by. The link of the various groups that make up the TTP is their shared ideology but that does not mean they adopt identical tactics. Distinguishing between factions of the TTP may not be required when condemning their latest attack but it becomes vital when the prospect of negotiation is at stake.
Whether the PML-N wages war or talks peace, it needs to know who it’s fighting or schmoozing with.
For now, though, peace talks are on life support and someone desperately needs to pull the plug. The military may just have euthanised them with its foray into North Waziristan. The air bombing campaign, described in the muddled rhetoric that has become a hallmark of our war against militancy as most definitely not being an operation, will convince the TTP to rebuff any government overtures. Since negotiations were never likely to be accepted by the TTP, the military action is like offering a refill to an alcoholic.
We need to be more concerned about the military seemingly once again taking it upon itself to formulate policy by changing the facts on the ground.
Nawaz Sharif has never had much luck at picking army chiefs. Those who haven’t deposed him have had to resign after public falling outs or grumble their way to retirement. Should Raheel Sharif follow the usual army modus operandi of pretending to listen to the civilians before carrying on and doing what the military was going to do anyway, either he or Nawaz Sharif may not be long for the political world. We keep hearing that Nawaz is a changed, more mature man but we were also assured that he would be better at governance and look at how well that worked out. If the prime minister is being undermined by his appointee, there may be fireworks. And we can be sure that the TTP will be poised to take advantage of that.
That theoretical future fight is already being mirrored by the petty rivalries that are playing out on the political stage. The TTP gets a free ride because it is not the foremost concern of anyone in power. The PTI prefers picking fights with the US, is still obsessed with Asif Zardari and his penchant for sticking his fingers in the till and blames everything that happens under its watch in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on the ANP. The MQM is against the Taliban but only as a cudgel with which to beat the ANP in Karachi. The PPP talks a good game against the militants but it had five years to back up that talk and failed dismally. The PML-N is too busy trying to sell off the country to its allies in the business world. The army still has a watchful eye -- and a large number of troops -- on the eastern border.
With everyone’s attention diverted away from those who are killing us by the thousands, a space has been created for the TTP to thrive. It just isn’t a high enough priority for anyone.
Anyone other than us the people, of course. We have been sitting ducks and will continue to be picked off one attack at a time.