By Lt.-Gen (R) Talat Masood –
By talking about Sharia, the TTP, despite committing many acts of terrorism, is projecting itself as the flag bearer of Islam and the government as un-Islamic
Talks between the government and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) seem to be entering a crucial phase. The cease-fire agreed by the TTP, initially for a period of one month, is likely to be extended and the government will reciprocate. Clearly, the recent accurate air strikes on militant hideouts as a retaliatory measure and the looming threat of a follow up with a major operation by the army compelled the TTP to agree to a cease-fire.
It was very prudent on the part of the TTP to break the momentum of military operations and gain some respite, even if these were intended to be limited in scope. During this lull the TTP will try to recover its losses and consolidate its hold over the havens in FATA that it partially or fully controls. Peace also provides it with an opportunity to replenish the weapons and equipment that it lost during air strikes, and to re-establish links with its sleeping cells in cities like Peshawar and Karachi for potential terrorist action if talks fail. And of course, during the lull to continue with hostage taking or bank robberies and even attacking polio workers as that is not part of the deal.
The most significant gain for the TTP has been in terms of the elevation of its status, the legitimizing of the insurgency and of terrorist groups. The government, by negotiating with it as equals, has given it respectability and acceptance. It is a major psychological breakthrough in its favor without the TTP itself conceding much.
The credit goes to the government that they were able to make the TTP agree to halt its violent activities as a prelude to engaging in dialogue. But there are still several autonomous militant groups that are unwilling to abide by the cease-fire. If the splinter groups exist as distinct, separate entities geographically, then it may be relatively easier to deal with them militarily or even to contain them. Mostly, the splinter groups are scattered, their identity remains nebulous, and launching operations against them may pose problems. The government has been seeking the support of the TTP in identifying these rogue groups and also in subduing them. This approach of relying on the TTP for making the rogue groups fall in line may serve a short-term purpose but could eventually result in enhancing its power base. So it may be advisable for the government to deal with those groups directly.
The latest demands of the TTP that are being highlighted by the media are: the imposition of Sharia, the withdrawal of the military from South Waziristan, and the release of prisoners.
The Taliban, by insisting on the imposition of their version of Sharia are seeking to define their identity through Islam and not by the constitution. Despite committing many acts of terrorism, by talking about Sharia the TTP is projecting itself as the flag bearer of Islam and the government as un-Islamic. Indeed, this is a clever maneuver to bring in competing legitimacy on the basis of religion versus the constitution and to use it to elevate their status and eventually capture power at least in parts of FATA. It appears that they have taken a cue from the Afghan Taliban.
On the other hand, has the government benefited from agreeing to suspend operations and engage in talks? In some ways it has. The government has sought a peaceful solution all along. This approach has the full backing of most of the political parties, as they all voted for dialogue and a peaceful solution to the problem. Launching a military operation would entail a massive displacement of people and collateral damage; more importantly the militants are our own people and if they could be brought back into the mainstream through negotiations and concessions that do not transgress the fundamentals of constitution or democracy, it will be a win –win situation for all sides. In the event that negotiations fail then the option of military operation as a last resort is always available.
There are several questions that arise from what is being said by the two sides, if we were to accept these on face value.
First, will the TTP agree to voluntarily cede control over North Waziristan and other areas in FATA and allow the Federal government to establish its writ over that territory? The TTP is demanding that the army relocate its position in North and South Waziristan, release prisoners (the list of which has been provided), and pay compensation for the losses suffered by the victims. According to Professor Ibrahim (the TTP nominee on the peace committee), its demand for Sharia is negotiable and they are not challenging the constitution any more. As for the logic of targeting innocent people before the cease fire was announced, the TTP apologists justify it by saying that in a warlike situation these acts of retaliation are common.
Recent statements being made by TTP leaders and its spokesperson are deliberately ambiguous. The situation is indeed very complex and the TTP is not going to loosen its hold over the territory they presently occupy in FATA, or easily dismantle the structure of violence they have erected against the state over the years. The militants have tasted power and they have access to money and resources. Withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan also provides the TTP with an opportunity to link itself closely with the Afghan Taliban, and this interlude in fighting suits them well.
From the army’s point of view, these two months (May and June 2014), were best suited for limited or full-scale military operations. The TTP may well keep the government deliberately engaged in talks with empty promises while this window of opportunity goes past. The army leadership is aware of this tactic. But despite this the army leadership has been fully supportive of the civilian leadership in its pursuit of finding a peaceful solution. If, however, attempts at finding a peaceful solution fail then the government will be left with no alternative but to go for a military operation. In this way it would have a far broader and deeper support from the political parties as well as from the people of Pakistan.
The writer is a retired Lt. General and a prominent commentator on issues related to politics and defence.