Walking the talks

February 9, 2014

Walking the talks

Peace committees formed by the government and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have taken an interesting path to start negotiations. First, it was the government’s four-member committee that refused to meet TTP’s peace team on Tuesday and asked TTP negotiators to clarify their position and mandate. A day later, the government’s committee made several futile attempts to contact the TTP-nominated committee.

Coordinator of TTP committee, Maulana Samiul Haq, (also known as father of the Taliban), instead of focusing on peace talks, preferred delivering a fiery speech on February 5 on the platform of Pakistan Defence Council in connection with the Kashmir Day.

He criticised the government and its committee in his speech and said that neither the prime minister nor his committee was fully authorised to hold peace talks. "Taliban are fighting a war of supremacy of the constitution and independence of the country because foreign powers are controlling it. Taliban are demanding enforcement of sharia in the country," he said, warning the government that an operation against the Taliban would put the whole country on fire.

Maulana Abdul Aziz, another member of the Taliban committee, also said the same day that without an agreement on the implementation of sharia, the Taliban would not take talks as successful. "Their real agenda is the implementation of sharia. All secular courts based on the common law system should be abolished," he said, adding, "The only way forward is to accept Taliban’s demand.

Maulana Aziz, chief cleric of Lal Masjid, who was acquitted from 27 criminal cases in 2013, is still on the fourth schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act, which means he is a terrorist suspect for the state. It is mandatory for such suspects to mark attendance with the local police at regular intervals and let police know in advance about their travel plans.

It seems the present government has provided TTP with an opportunity to consolidate and increase its support base -- both operational and ideological in the country.

The TTP and its committee have been terming implementation of sharia as the first step to start talks while the government’s committee is authorised to talk within constitutional parameters.

TTP negotiators have been presenting TTP as an organisation which has been fighting for Islam. The government or its committee has failed, so far, to counter the TTP narrative.

Amid the push for talks, terrorist attacks are being carried out on regular intervals. Last week, at least six people were killed in attack on a Shia mosque in Peshawar. TTP’s central spokesperson first distanced the organisation from the attack as Jundullah took responsibility but, a day later, TTP’s Peshawar chapter chief took responsibility.

The government failed to capitalise on the attack to put pressure on TTP and to use the incident as an event to isolate certain groups (at least Jundullah) of TTP to launch an offensive.

"The talk about talks has, in fact, provided TTP further space and avenues to propagate its narrative," says Amir Rana, a security analyst and head of Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS). "The government needs a security-based approach, instead of an ideological-based approach to start dialogue," he says, adding, "In the last one week or so the TTP has been able to erode what government and security forces achieved in the last 4-5 years against the Taliban.

The most important question is the legitimacy of the two teams. There is no member of parliament in the government’s peace committee. TTP has been sending its demands to the media directly instead of through the committee.

The composition of both the teams is quite interesting; only one member of the government committee is from the tribal areas and that from Mohmand Agency. So far, no secretariat of the committee has been established. "The Interior minister is not involved in the peace process. It has only been providing logistic support to the committee members. I do not know who is keeping a record of the activities of the committee," says a senior official of the ministry of interior.

"The final draft of our security policy is with the prime minister. Dialogue is the first part of that policy but before starting dialogue, it is suggested in the policy to build a narrative against terrorism. Dialogue does not mean only talking to Taliban but also to victims of terrorism and the society as well," he says. "So far, there is no clarity on what would happen if peace talks succeed or vice versa. There is no deliberation among different stakeholders about backlash if peace talks fails."

Rahimullah Yusufzai, member of the government’s committee, says initially he was under the impression that the committee would act to establish contact between the government and Taliban. "I think the government should include its people in the committee. At least, the interior minister should have been part of the team. At the end of the day, it would be the government and TTP that would have to talk. The prime minister, however, wants us to play a bigger role and he also assured us during the last meeting that we would be given powers to make crucial decisions during the peace process."

"The TTP has clarified our reservations regarding its committee. It is a lengthy and complicated process," he says.

It is interesting that, at one level, TTP and its committee have been terming implementation of sharia as the first step to start talks while, on the other, the government’s committee is authorised to talk within constitutional parameters.

What would be the result of these talks and what can the state offer to the non-state actors? The state would definitely expect the TTP to come and act within the parameters of the constitution, leave the path of violence, and take part in the political process.

On the other hand, TTP’s demands are clear: it wants implementation of its version of sharia in the country, it would like the constitution to be amended, it would want women dress according to its sharia, it would also want that its prisoners would be freed and drone attacks to end.

"All these demands are against the fundamental rights of the people. If the state accepts even a single demand of TTP, it would have to revisit the Constitution," says Professor Dr Khadim Hussain, a Peshawar-based expert on TTP.

Walking the talks