Talking peace with militants
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
by Khalid Aziz
Since April of this year the military changed the method of fighting the insurgency in FATA and the NWFP. Prior to ‘Operation Zalzala,’ which was conducted in the Mahsud area of South Waziristan from January to April, the military strategy was guided by a minimalist response. However, this led to poor results with declining morale among troops. It also created a perception in people’s mind that the government was ambivalent in its approach. Although the Pakistani military has begun to challenge the supremacy of the militants in Bajaur and Swat, the policy needs to be refined to make it more robust. In Bajaur a difficult decision was taken to challenge the highly trained group of militants, many of whom, like Qari Ziaur Rehman, belonged to the Afghan Taliban movement. A large number of other Central Asian militants are also present here. Only a detailed investigation will shed light on how and from where such militants are able to enter Bajaur and Swat. Information suggests that such infiltration is occurring from Tajikistan and the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan. If that is so, one would like to know the reason why no counteraction is taken to block this route by Afghanistan?
The TTP in Waziristan is relatively quiet and under pressure of a possible split between its North and South components. In North Waziristan, Gul Bahadur has announced his separation from the TTP on the grounds that it is unnecessarily fighting the Pakistani military while, according to him, the threat is from foreign troops in Afghanistan. Therefore, except for Bajaur and Swat, where serious fighting is going on, matters are calm for the time being. However, the spread of the insurgency into Dir adjacent to Swat is a real possibility. The situation in Afghanistan is not good and remains precarious. The US is carrying out a review of its policies there. The situation is not working out favourably for the allies. This conclusion is at variance with British foreign secretary David Milliband’s comments that the situation in Afghanistan was not bad. There is something which is not going right and has forced both the US and the UK to agree to direct talks between Kabul and the militants. The first round of secret talks between the Afghan militants and Kabul took place in Makkah in September. These were attended by the Afghan Taliban, the Hizb-e-Islami, and representatives of the Afghan government with the UK and Saudi Arabia as moderators.
Pakistan should have been deeply involved in formulating a counterinsurgency policy during the special session of the National Assembly. The terms for the use of the air force and the artillery should have been debated to reduce the painful fallout of the collateral deaths. In this connection the government provided intensive briefings in camera to members of the National Assembly. A lot of effort went into this exercise aimed at creating a national consensus about the war. Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI-F recommended during the proceedings that an opportunity should be given to the militants to put forward their own point of view. This was rightly rejected.
However, it is sad that the members lost interest in these important proceedings and the Speaker tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to take more interest. This showed that the political parties have a myopic attitude towards national security and used the occasion for political point scoring instead of seriously discussing details of a counterinsurgency strategy; secondly the parliament wasted a good opportunity to steer the country out of problems by providing foreign policy guidelines for the conduct of this war. The message to the military clearly is, “Look, we are too busy with our own matters to be bothered about issue of insurgency.” If this is the case, then we have let down those who are sacrificing their lives in the ongoing operations.
The offer by the TTP to hold talks with the government was made in the background of events narrated above. What does it mean and how should the government react? The offer of holding peace talks by the TTP has to be considered in the light of many of our existential problems. First we find that Pakistani public is looking for peace. Thus, the public’s sentiment is for ending the military operations. Secondly, the public has been badly hurt by the worsening day-to-day problems. We have a declining economy, food and oil shortages and an adverse balance of payment which has badly affected the value of the rupee. The galloping inflation has made the life of an average Pakistani very difficult indeed. Apparently the attempt by some of the religious parties in the National Assembly to secure a hearing for the militants in the secret briefing was, to say the least, distasteful. How can anyone in one’s right senses think of similarity of treatment for rebels and the military fighting them?
The opposition parties have demanded that Pakistan should delink itself from the war and stop partnering the US. However, no one is willing to spell out how our enormous problems will be resolved even if the policy was changed? I guess we are emotional in our utterances and out of touch with the geostrategic reality facing us. The plain fact is that Pakistan has so seriously mishandled its external relations that it will find it difficult to get help. An astute observer Barnett Ruben said many years ago that Pakistan is a rentier state which plays its policies to attract resources from foreign countries and will therefore remain unstable. If the opposition parties want to change Pakistani policies they should provide details of their alternative plan. It makes no sense to criticise a situation without offering alternative solutions.
This explanation of the situation shows that Pakistan is doing better than before in the military field. However, the overall economic and financial conditions have deteriorated. But the worst aspect is the lack of coherence and unity of purpose on the political front as witnessed by the performance of Parliament and the attitude of political parties which want to make capital out of a security threat facing the state.
Therefore, what should be the response to the militants’ offer of talks? First, the government must have an agreed framework regarding the talks. Only if the militants follow the process can any meaningful progress be achieved. The agreed framework must have clauses to penalise violations, with the militants required to provide financial sureties, as well as a commitment not to violate ceasefires.
If one looks at the fate of previous peace talks with the militants–Ladha in 2004, Sarrarogha in 2005, North Waziristan in 2006 and Swat in 2008–all of them ended in failure and the militants succeeded in getting their prisoners released, and received hefty compensations, in addition. In short, these were appeasements and not agreements. Let us not hurry into another appeasement. (The News)
The writer is a former chief secretary of NWFP and heads the Regional Institute of Policy Research. Email: azizkhalid @gmail.com