February 11, 2013

Peace at a cost

 by Kamal Siddiqui in Express Tribune 11/2/13 

It is an offer that is too hard to resist. At a time when the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is busy attacking key installations and playing havoc with our country's fragile peace, the militia has also talked of ending it all and making up. The TTP has made it clear that the institution it wants to talk to is the army, which it calls the "real power" in Pakistan. The ball is now in the government's court.

However, instead of welcoming the offer, the government has remained somewhat silent. Even the otherwise very vocal Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, has said little on the offer. There is a debate, it seems, within the government on how to proceed here.

The TTP has named three people to act as guarantors to the talks. The names are quite telling. All three have welcomed their nomination but have expressed their inability to make guarantees on behalf of the government. In other words, the problem is with the government. The TTP, in their eyes, is very much on the ball.

In contrast, there has been little debate on this offer in the public domain. Most religious parties are in favour of the talks. The Tehreek-e-Insaf has distanced itself from this, possibly because the TTP does not consider it worthy of being a guarantor. To every cloud, there is a silver lining.

Most Pakistanis are confused. The government tells them of the violence that the TTP have wreaked. Many don't believe this, saying that Muslims cannot do this to another Muslims. This is also the stance that is taken by the Jamaat-e-Islami, which says that if a truce is signed, the real face of those who are abusing the Taliban's name would be exposed.

For the parties named by the TTP, it is a political shot in the arm, ahead of the 2013 elections. Their candidatures have been endorsed. This is most welcome for JUI-F, which has to regain its lost seats in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

As we talk of talks, the issue is larger. If we talk to the militia, we are also talking about the entry of the TTP into mainstream society and politics. Should we be welcoming this? These are questions that play heavily on our mind. Already, our society has welcomed extremist mindsets.

The government seems to have been put on the defensive with many quarters saying that by not talking to the TTP, it is not serious in its desire for peace. What is strange is that, while many were quick to attack the government, no one seems to question the motives of the TTP.

The TTP for its part has adopted a two-pronged strategy under which the militia wants to talk while at the same time, it continues to inflict damage. One day prior to their offer, the TTP had attacked security forces in Serai Naurang and Lakki Marwat, which left 13 security personnel dead. The attack followed a series of high-profile targeted operations carried out over the past few weeks. Observers say that they want to talk from a position of strength.

Others argue that the military operation has rendered the militia weak. That is why it is coming to the negotiation table. This is something that cannot be independently verified. In fact, the TTP now seems to have spread itself to as far as Karachi and many predict that the militia has grown financially and is now in the process of improving its functioning.

Should we talk to the TTP? Memories are not short. One recalls how a woman was mercilessly beaten in Swat for some misdemeanour. Do we want that to happen again?

Some say that it is not the TTP that breaks the agreement but the military. For the army, the move by the Taliban comes at a time when it is involved in a bloody, expensive and somewhat unending operation in the tribal areas. But there is reluctance to make up. What we do know is that over the past decade, the militants and different governments have made many attempts to clinch a truce. Every such effort has resulted in more bloodshed. We need to think this through.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2013.

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