Friday, February 14, 2014

Disarrayed Dialogue: Moderate Taliban reach out to Real Taliban in Pakistan

Sushant Sareen, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

After months of to-ing and fro-ing on a clear, cogent and coherent policy and strategy to combat the ‘Mother of all Problems” in Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pulled yet another surprise on his countrymen by announcing a last ditch attempt to hold a dialogue with the Taliban. Two earlier behind-the-scene attempts by the Nawaz Sharif government to bring the Taliban to the talks table – the first through Major Amir and Harkatul Mujahideen chief Fazlur Rehman Khalil and the second through some clerics – had never really got off the ground. Meanwhile, a sudden spike in Taliban attacks seemed to stiffen the back of the Pakistan army which carried out retaliatory attacks against suspected ‘bad’ Taliban targets in North Waziristan (NWA) using helicopter gunships and jet fighter aircraft. The general impression that was gaining ground was that the Pakistani state, especially the Army, was gearing up to take the fight to the Taliban and perhaps even launch either a full scale or a targeted operation in ‘Terror Central’ i.e. North Waziristan.

The Taliban sympathisers in Pakistan had been put on the back-foot by the growing public opinion in favour of a military operation against Taliban safe havens in NWA. The elusive political consensus for launching such an operation seemed finally at hand with even Taliban sympathisers like Imran Khan declaring that his party would stand with the army if an operation was launched. Even the Taliban were convinced about an impending military assault and in order to forestall it they suddenly started sending signals that they were open to holding talks with the government. In the days leading up to Nawaz Sharif’s much anticipated policy statement in Parliament on tackling Taliban terrorism, a series of statements were issued by the Taliban spokesmen expressing their willingness to hold ‘meaningful talks’ with the government.

But with ministers engaging in tough talk in public, it was expected that Nawaz Sharif would end his government’s dithering and go on the offensive against the Taliban. Alas, that wasn’t to be. Making a sharp about-turn, Nawaz Sharif once again opted for the talks tack and announced a four man committee to hold negotiations with the Taliban. With Nawaz Sharif having played into their hands, the Taliban were quick to grab the opportunity offered to them on a platter. They let a couple of days pass just so as to not betray their delight at the turn of events and then magnanimously announced their own five-man negotiating team and also a 10 man committee to oversee, supervise, guide and monitor the dialogue with the government.

The decision to give talks another chance has come as a shot in the arm for the Taliban supporters who have capitalised on this opportunity to push their sinister agenda and grotesquely morph the public discourse and debate from one centred on countering terrorism to one focussed on enforcing Shariah (Islamic law) in the country. Suddenly, those demanding action against the Taliban have been put on the defensive. With the depredations of the Taliban being explained away as the struggle for transforming Pakistan into an Islamic utopia with Shariah as supreme law, those opposing the Taliban can mount only a muted opposition to the Taliban tactics, not to their objectives. Whether or not they agree with Shariah, everybody has to pay lip service to it because not doing so is like giving an open invitation to murder.

Regardless of who the government nominated as its negotiators, once the negotiation gets centred around Shariah, as they are likely to because the Taliban have proclaimed this to be their ultimate goal, the table will tilt in favour of the Taliban. Although this is bad enough, what has added to the sense of disquiet is the fact that the negotiations will not be taking place between those who take a more nuanced and moderate view of what is Shariah, and those who want to stuff a literal and stone-age version of Shariah down the throats of the people; the negotiations will actually be taking place between a set of moderate Taliban (i.e. the government nominated committee) and hard-line or real Taliban (i.e. the Taliban nominated committee).

Out of the four members on the government committee, three – Major Amir, Irfan Siddiqui and Rustam Shah Mohmand – are known to be either closet Taliban or have publicly taken positions that represent, or at least favour, the Taliban and jihadist cause. The fourth – Rahimullah Yusufzai – has never really come out unequivocally against the Taliban in a way that he could be labelled as someone opposed to them. In short, they all have Islamist leanings. As far as the Taliban nominees are concerned, it gets even worse. Maulana Samiul Haq not only openly claims to be the father of the Taliban but also has ‘swung both ways’ (pun intended) because before he became the Taliban representative he was approached by the government to intercede on its behalf with the Taliban. Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid fame has known Al Qaeda links and has issued fatwas against reading funeral prayers for soldiers who died fighting the Taliban. Prof Ibrahim is a Jamaat Islami leader which has openly advocated and defended the Taliban and functioned as the political face of Al Qaeda. Imran Khan and Kifayatullah, who have begged off from the Taliban committee have also been espousing the Taliban cause. Incidentally, five out of the seven negotiators from both sides are Pashtuns, one (Irfan Siddiqui) is a Punjabi and one, (Abdul Aziz) is from a Baloch tribe settled in Punjab.

The ideological predilection, orientation and affinity of the negotiators from both sides have practically put the Taliban in the driving seat as far as the dialogue is concerned. More than the Pakistani state’s narrative, it is the Taliban narrative and demands that are dominating the discourse. Already, by appearing to go on its knees in the quest for a dialogue with the Taliban, the government had conceded valuable space to the adversary. Compounding the mistake, it appointed negotiators who tend to speak the language of the other side instead of that of the home side. Members of the government team have already weakened their sides negotiating position by providing an alibi to the Taliban on one of the implicit but critical red-lines laid down by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his parliament speech i.e. talks and terror cannot happen together.

Instead of holding the Taliban feet to fire on the issue of terror attacks, the government team members have been holding forth on why such attacks might continue to happen because groups opposed to the negotiations might try to sabotage the dialogue by launching terror strikes. Quite asides the fact that this is exactly the sort of alibi Pakistanis use with India when they conveniently wash their hands off terrorist outrages in India by blaming them on ‘non-state actors’, buying into this sort of explanation amounts to allowing the Taliban ‘plausible deniability’ even before the formal start of negotiations. In other words, the Taliban can use shadowy groups to continue with their grisly task. This is exactly what has happened in the case of the suicide attack on a Peshawar restaurant frequented by Shias. The Taliban denied any responsibility for the attack and distanced themselves from the Jundullah which first claimed responsibility. Incidentally, Jundullah is a known affiliate of the Taliban. A day later, a group claiming to be TTP (Peshawar) claimed responsibility, but not a peep has come from either the government team, or the Taliban or even the Taliban committee members who were busy blaming India and US for the Peshawar attack.

One of the government’s primary objectives behind holding a dialogue was that it would bring a halt to the wave of terror attacks and this would in turn create space for some sort of a political settlement. Although the whole premise of a political settlement with a group like the Taliban with millenarian objectives is rather far-fetched, there is the attendant problem of who to negotiate with to usher in peace. This acquires even more salience in light of the alibi, or if you will ‘deniability’, that has been granted to the TTP, which is the umbrella organisation of most of the 60 odd terror groups operating in Pakistan. The point is that if the TTP cannot ensure that there won’t be any terror strike during the negotiations then what purpose will be served by talking to it. In essence, if the TTP can’t stop the violence then it is just one of the groups and not the only group with which talks will have to be held. This is where the confusion gets further confounded. In principle, the government has declared it is ready to talk to any of the groups that is interested in holding a dialogue with the state. And yet, the entire focus has been on holding a dialogue with just the TTP. In fact, in order to woo the TTP to the negotiating table, the government is reported to have shelved the tentative dialogue it was purportedly holding with some smaller groups. But if the TTP cannot, or as the case may be, will not, deliver on a cessation of terror attacks then the entire exercise is quite futile.

The continuation of violence is only one part of the conundrum. Even though peace in itself is a laudable objective, there is no clarity on the terms on which peace will be achieved. Except for a pro forma reference to holding the talks within the parameters of the constitution (which means nothing if Samiul Haq is to be taken seriously when he says that the Taliban are fighting for upholding and implementation of the constitution which according to him is being violated by the government!), everything else is up in the air. Even the negotiators of both sides are not clear on what they are going to talk about. Not only are the negotiators speaking in different voices on what they think their mandate is, they are also having their own take on the issues that will be coming up for discussion. For instance, Samiul Haq and Ibrahim have been saying that their role will be that of mediators. In fact, Samiul Haq has said that his committee represents neither the Taliban nor the government and will protect the interests of both sides. Abdul Aziz, on the other hand, has been waxing eloquent about how the main issue will be imposition of Shariah, which even Samiul Haq and Ibrahim agree will be the bottom-line of the Taliban.

On the government side, the negotiators have already defined what according to them will be the central points that the Taliban will raise – among other things, release of prisoners, withdrawal of army from FATA, reparations and compensation for damage caused by military operations, general amnesty (including for the foreign fighters). Rustam Shah Mohmand has even gone to the extent of saying that Shariah was not an issue for the Tribals, as though they will be negotiating not with the Taliban but with the Tribals. Yusufzai has also listed these same items around which negotiations will take place. In a sense, by anticipating what the tactical or transactional demands of the Taliban will be, the government negotiators seem to be creating a climate for conceding them, more so because they have also pointed out the likely objections from the army to accepting these demands. By making public what they think will be the initial demands of the Taliban (which they suggest will have to be conceded if the peace process has to progress) they have confronted the Pakistani state – both the government and the military – with a grave dilemma. If these demands are conceded, it will embolden and strengthen the Islamist insurgents; if they are not, then the whole process will collapse. What is more, these demands could drive a wedge between the civilian government and the military if the former is inclined to concede these demands and the latter is opposed to them.

There are also serious doubts harboured on both sides about the mandate and authority that the nominated committees exercise. Although the government has declared that its committee is fully empowered to negotiate with the Taliban, the negotiators on the other side have raised questions how empowered the government committee really is. Similar questions have been raised by the government committee about its Taliban counterpart. While the Taliban have ‘reposed’ their confidence in the people they have nominated, they have also announced a 10 member committee comprising top members of the Taliban Shura to oversee, supervise, monitor and issue directions to the people who will be directly negotiating with the government. If anything, this is a clear message (if one was needed) of the subservient and subordinate nature of the committee that will negotiate with the government.

Although people like Samiul Haq and Abdul Aziz might pretend to be ideologues of the Taliban and the Jamaat Islami may behave as the political face and over-ground spokesperson of the Al Qaeda/Taliban combine, the TTP has really shown them their place. Not only have these stalwarts, who assumed that they would be riding on Taliban shoulders into power which has otherwise eluded them, been disabused of these foolish notions, their stature and status has been reduced to that of mere errand boys. The same was the message for Imran Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rehman (through his party man, Kifayatullah), who probably understood it and did not become part of the Taliban committee. But people like Samiul Haq, Abdul Aziz and the Jamaat Islami, in their desperation to regain some relevance have ended up as useful fools in the hands of the Taliban who will dispense them in the rubbish bin of history once they have served their purpose.

Clearly then, this dialogue is going nowhere. This begs the question why Nawaz Sharif decided to try this tack when even he would have known the minefield he was walking into. There are probably three or four explanations behind this decision. The first reason is purely personal. Initiating hostilities would make him and his family a target of attack. He has already backed off from the execution of a couple of Taliban prisoners after he was warned that it would make the Sharif family fair game for the Taliban. The second reason was that any operation would result in retaliation in Punjab. This he wants to avoid at all costs. After all, if the ‘controlling authority’ of the state of Pakistan becomes unsafe, all of Sharif’s plans to resurrect the economy and cement his political base would come a cropper. Third, he did not want to alienate his core right-wing and conservative constituency that has an ambivalent attitude towards the Taliban and other sundry Islamists.

Although before the dialogue started, even his core constituency was leaning on the side of a military operation, Sharif knows how fickle this sentiment is. The moment the bombs would start going off in Lahore, Faisalabad and other parts of Punjab, a clamour would start to talk to the Taliban. What is more, if things went wrong during the operation (as they inevitably would) and civilian casualties started mounting, the Taliban supporters would start beating the drums to stop the operation. Nawaz Sharif would also keep the Lal Masjid crisis in mind where first the media shouted itself hoarse demanding an operation, and after the operation was launched it switched sides and started breast beating about the casualties caused by the operation. Fourth, Nawaz Sharif is somewhat chary of using the army in a big way because of the fear that it might tilt the civil-military balance in favour of the latter. Finally, Nawaz Sharif cannot afford to ignore the impact that such an operation would have on Pakistan's game-plan in Afghanistan where the situation is already in a flux what with the withdrawal of ISAF looming large on the horizon. The last thing he would want is to precipitate matters and create a situation that sucks the Pakistan army even deeper into the quagmire by making the Taliban of all hues close ranks and turn their guns against Pakistan. It is another matter that this is exactly what would happen once the US and ISAF troops withdraw, but that is something that is still some months away.

As far as the Taliban are concerned, the dialogue works to their advantage every which way and the longer they can carry on with this charade, the more they stand to gain. The way the Taliban see it, as the US drawdown takes place in Afghanistan, their allies (some would say principals, i.e. the Afghan Taliban) are expected to start controlling large swathes of territory. Neither the Afghan nor the Pakistani Taliban would therefore like to get bogged down in a scrap with the Pakistani forces at this stage. In other words, the Taliban don’t want to muddy the waters just yet. The closer the TTP can push the possible military operation to the withdrawal date of the Americans, the more difficult and complicated it will become for Pakistani forces to move against them. What is more, the TTP would be better placed to retreat into sanctuaries under Afghan Taliban control inside Afghanistan with the foreign forces withdrawing. Of course, the Pakistanis who have put a lot in the store of their ‘strategic allies’ – the Afghan Taliban – believe that once these people start operating openly inside Afghanistan, they will squeeze the TTP and not just deny them any safe haven but push them back into Pakistan where the Pakistani forces can eliminate them. It is another matter that the Pakistanis have a inherent quality for miscalculating and misreading situations and then regretting at leisure.

By entering into negotiations, not only have the Taliban delayed the military operation (and in the process retained their safe havens in not just North Waziristan but also other areas in the Tribal Areas), they have also demolished the consensus that was developing in favour of exercising the military option. Just when the Pakistani state and society appeared to be closing ranks against the Taliban, the talks have once again widened the cleavages within the society and between the civilian leadership and the military. As mentioned earlier, they have managed to twist the debate from terrorism to Islam and sowed ideological confusion among their opponents. What is worse, the dialogue would certainly have an impact on the morale of the troops who will bristle at the spectacle of the Taliban negotiating with the Pakistani state not just as equals but also from a position of strength. The fact that the Pakistan army was all keyed up to move into NWA and had to stand down at the last moment is unlikely to go down well among the rank and file. Motivating troops for an operation that is likely to be somewhat long drawn out takes a little doing. The task becomes even more complicated when there are confused signals that are being sent about the adversary the troops are supposed to fight.

Nawaz Sharif would of course be seeing things differently. According to his calculation, if the talks collapse, it would provide a valid justification to launch military operations. But then the question arises that if 50000 casualties are not enough of a justification, how will public opinion crystallise in favour of the military option just because the dialogue breaks down. Chances are therefore that Nawaz Sharif will end up with the worst of both worlds. Not only will the talks will fail but Nawaz Sharif will also be accused of engaging the Taliban in bad faith and not doing enough to ensure the success of the dialogue. Far from public opinion consolidating in favour of use of force, it will not just remain divided but might even fragment more than it already is.

All this presumes that the Taliban version of Shariah will not be acceptable to the Pakistani state. But given Nawaz Sharif’s Islamist proclivities, it is entirely possible that he might toy with the idea of conceding many if not all of the Islamist demands. This way he can anoint himself Amir-ul-Momineen. Not that this will end the violence. On the contrary, this will lead to a new round of conflict with the Taliban who swear loyalty to Mullah Omar – after all, it isn’t possible to have two Amir-ul-Momineens. Even if Nawaz Sharif resists the temptation of becoming Amir-ul-Momineen, he will satisfy his Islamist urges by further Islamising the laws in Pakistan. He could then use this to mobilise the public behind him by taking the stand that he has done what was being demanded and yet the Taliban remain recalcitrant. In other words, the war will however still have to be fought because at the end of the day it is all about a power grab. But then this will be a war between two groups of Taliban – the faux version led by Nawaz Sharif and the real version fighting under Mullah Omar’s banner. 

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