Negotiating with the Taliban — Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi

It is ultimately the responsibility of the Pakistani government to protect its citizens from external and internal threats. Unfortunately, the government has failed to do so in the tribal and the adjacent settled areas, leaving its people at the mercy of various militant groups

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is expected to get a mixed reception in Washington. On the one hand, the US administration will greet him with diplomatic courtesies to show that it wants to work closely with the newly elected political government rather than rely on President Pervez Musharraf; on the other, the US will seek categorical assurances from the Pakistani prime minister about asserting his state’s authority in the tribal areas and containing Taliban and Al Qaeda activities there.

The US is willing to extend more financial and technical assistance for improving the capacity of Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities to deal effectively with Islamic militancy, provided that the Pakistani government clearly articulates its strategies. The American government appears to have stepped back, at least for the time being, from taking unilateral military action in the tribal areas.

The US has generally opposed dialogue with militant groups. However, it will ease its opposition if the prime minister offers some definite ideas on the dynamics of the proposed negotiations. The Americans want the government of Pakistan to ensure that the tribal areas are no longer actively bolstering insurgents in Afghanistan.

The Taliban now pose a major threat to the Pakistani state in the areas in which it operates. In spite of this, Pakistan is expected to negotiate with them. A recent meeting of the ruling coalition called for pursuing negotiations with militants in the tribal areas. It was also declared that no one would be allowed to “challenge the writ of the government or [use] Pakistan’s soil for terrorist activities.” Furthermore, they discussed the protection of Pakistan’s sovereignty “against foreign intervention”. This is merely a re-statement of what the government has been declaring in the past, but has been unable or unwilling to implement.

There is nothing wrong with engaging in dialogue with the militants. However, this new round of negotiations will make sense only after the government makes an honest appraisal of its earlier attempts. Negotiations were first held and agreements were signed during 2004-06. The second series of negotiations were initiated earlier this year in the in the wake of the current coalition government’s ascent to power. These negotiations have to be critically reviewed before embarking on new negotiations. The government cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.

Pakistan’s policies with regard to the Taliban reflect the indecisiveness caused by the complex juxtaposition of domestic politics and external pressures. Domestically, this problem is partly owing to the inability of the ruling coalition to pull together. The most serious predicament is translating counter-terrorism rhetoric into implementable policies. The government machinery is in a state of complete disarray in most of the tribal areas and its security forces often shy away from asserting their authority. The losses suffered by the military have not been fully explained by the relevant authorities, which allows pro-Taliban elements to argue that most troops lack the motivation to fight the militants.

The government is further constrained by populist Islamist discourse on militancy; this follows from the Musharraf era, during which cooperation with the Islamists was used to weaken the support of his political adversaries. This gave them space to cultivate strong links in the government and the security apparatus. The Islamist worldview is strongly anti-American and describes the Taliban as the first line of defence. Those who share this perspective are unable to comprehend the current Taliban threat. To them, American policies constitute a greater threat and they argue that had Pakistan not joined hands with the US, there would have been no problem with the Taliban. By implication, this means that the situation in the tribal areas can improve if Pakistan gives up its pro-America policy.

The government lacks the political clout to openly challenge the pro-Taliban discourse, which is spearheaded mainly, but not exclusively, by Islamist and political-right circles. Additionally, its credibility has been damaged by its failure to protect the ordinary citizens from soaring inflation, steep rises in fuel and food prices and unrelenting load shedding. The resultant alienation of the people limits the government’s capacity to mobilise public opinion in favour of its perspective on militancy.

Two of the coalition partners, the PMLN and the JUIF, also oppose adopting a tough stance against the Taliban. The PMLN maintains a rather understated stance against the Taliban in order to secure political dividends by sympathising with the Islamist discourse. The JUIF has an ideological affinity with the Taliban and is known for supporting them in the past, although the militant groups have now challenged the JUIF’s political standing in parts of NWFP. The disposition of the PMLN and the JUIF thus compounds ambiguities in the government’s policies towards the Taliban.

The major Taliban groups appear more confident now than ever as they are entrenched in many tribal areas, and the civilian administration and security authorities are under immense pressure. Some Taliban groups gained such a stronghold that they outline conditions under which the Pakistani authorities can function in their areas. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan has gone so far as to demand the removal of the NWFP government.

Given these ground realities it is difficult to imagine a shared framework for negotiations. Will the Taliban be treated at par with the Pakistani government and who will determine the guidelines for them to deal with each other? Will the government seek their terms and conditions for allowing the NWFP government to function?

The Taliban’s activities in the settled districts of the NWFP must also be considered. They have expanded their domain to several adjoining districts, openly flout the state authority and assert their power. The MMA government in the NWFP (2002-2007) quietly yielded space to them. Now, it will be an uphill task for the federal as well as the ANP provincial government to reverse this process.

The Taliban appear to have come to the conclusion that their ideological struggle in Afghanistan cannot be pursued effectively without neutralising or excluding Pakistani authorities from the tribal areas and NWFP. If this is the Taliban’s objective, then how can an ideological movement be convinced to respect a sovereign state, especially when this opposes the realisation of their global ideological agenda?

It is ultimately the responsibility of the Pakistani government to protect its citizens from external and internal threats. Unfortunately, the government has failed to do so in the tribal and the adjacent settled areas, leaving its people at the mercy of various militant groups as well as some criminal elements that have taken the cover of militancy. Consequently, many of these unprotected people have migrated in search of security.

In principle, negotiation and dialogue should be preferred over coercion for resolving issues. However, this applies to both sides. The Taliban cannot be allowed to use force to establish their hegemony. As long as the Pakistani state does not demonstrate the determination and capability to push back the Taliban, it will not be able to settle the issue except on the latter’s terms.

Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst

Source: Daily Times, 27/7/2008

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