Towards reconciliation?

Defence Minister Pervez Khattak offers talks to PTM again. As expected, PTM responds promptly and positively

The minister had made a similar offer to the PTM several months ago, but the talks never took place. It is possible that homework was not done while floating the idea or events overtook the initiative as happens so often in Pakistan.

Subsequently, the question was raised whether Defence Minister Pervez Khattak had consulted the military high command, which has serious differences with the PTM, before making the offer. However, one does not expect the minister, who has held high positions including that of Khyber Pakhrunkhwa chief minister from 2013-2018, to extend such an offer on his own.

One expects his second offer of talks to have been cleared by Prime Minister Imran Khan in consultation with the military.

It is not as if the government and the military have not interacted with the PTM leadership earlier. Invitations have been extended, jirgas have been formed and meetings (open as well as secret) have been held in Islamabad, Peshawar, North Waziristan and South Waziristan. The general officers commanding (GOCs) of the Pakistan Army held meetings with PTM leaders in North Waziristan and South Waziristan in the early days when the secular, ultra-nationalist rights movement was emerging on the scene. Senior military officers in Peshawar also interacted secretly with the PTM leaders.

Former Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director general, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor had publicly revealed that a PTM delegation was invited for a meeting in Islamabad. He had even described the PTM head Manzoor Pashteen as ‘a fantastic guy’ in an adjective-laden military jargon sometimes used by army officers. He may have later regretted this when he declared that the PTM had crossed the ‘red lines’ and that its time was up. On that second occasion, he claimed to be in possession of evidence about PTM activists receiving money from Indian agents and working for anti-state elements to destabilise Pakistan. However, he didn’t follow up that claim as no evidence was shared with the media. Perhaps, the military didn’t want to close the chapter altogether believing opportunities might arise in future to engage in talks with the PTM. Such an opportunity has apparently arisen.

It is time for all the stakeholders to focus on putting their house in order by resolving internal problems instead of making reconciliation difficult by fuelling the differences concerning external issues like the Afghan conflict.

Shahjee Gul Afridi, an MNA in the previous National Assembly from Khyber Agency in the erstwhile FATA used to host a jirga in which tribal elders, certain politicians and PTM leaders used to participate to discuss issues raised by the latter. Today, he has a son and a nephew in the Khyber Pakhtunnkhwa Assembly following the first provincial assembly polls in the area in July 2019. Shah Farman, then a PTI provincial minister and now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor, was also a member of that jirga. A few sessions of the jirga were held but no decisions could be reached. The PTM questioned the authority of the jirga and wanted it to be properly notified and empowered. The government wanted to keep it informal and low-profile to show that its work was limited to the tribal areas and that the issues under discussion were of a local nature and needed to be resolved locally at that low level. A formal arrangement will likely be required if the latest government offer to the PTM has to have substantial results.

That the previous interactions didn’t achieve anything was on account of the deep mistrust between the two sides, particularly the military and the PTM. Bridging that gap would be vital to making any talks meaningful. Without the military’s consent, no patch-up with the PTM is possible or workable. To be heard and tolerated, the PTM will have to tone down its aggressive anti-military stance and focus on its core demands. Its five original demands were supported by many Pakistanis, particularly Pakhtuns, and the military too generally found them ‘genuine’. To refresh our memory, these were justice for the family of young aspiring Waziristani, Karachi-based model Naqeebullah Mehsud who was gunned down in a fake encounter on the orders of senior police officer Rao Anwar; the recovery of missing persons; a reduction in the roadside security checkpoints and change in the attitude of the military personnel deployed there; a demining operation to save lives; and the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission. Except for the last demand, some progress has been made in the right direction. More could be achieved with focus and sincerity of purpose.

At this point of time Pervez Khattak seems to be the right person for the job. As defence minister, he is close to the military high command and in a technical sense their superior. With the right connections, he can represent the civilian side of the military and represent it in talks. As a Pakhtun from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and an electable politician, he is qualified and aware of issues to talk to fellow Pakhtuns leading the PTM. He is also known as a shrewd negotiator who is able to build consensus and coalitions.

The PTM has said it welcomes the offer of talks despite its bitter experiences of the past. All PTM leaders have now been to jail, one of its top leaders Mohammad Arif Wazir, a cousin of the group’s South Waziristan MNA Ali Wazir, was gunned down some weeks ago in Wana and some are imprisoned or facing criminal charges. After an almost complete ban in local media earlier, it is now able to get some space, mostly in the newspapers. However, it has a strong presence in the social media and also in the international press. The Afghan government, parliament and media are fully behind it. In Western countries, Afghans join Pakistani Pashtuns to stage protests. In the long-running Afghan conflict, the PTM has backed the Afghan government against the Taliban and like other nationalist parties has been critical of Pakistan’s policies concerning Afghanistan. This too has been a hurdle in effecting reconciliation between the government, particularly the military, and the PTM.

It is time for all stakeholders to focus on putting their house in order by resolving internal problems instead of making reconciliation difficult by fuelling the differences concerning external issues like the Afghan conflict.

The writer is Resident Editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Towards reconciliation?