There is too much talk about the talks between the dithering government and perfidious TTP. The whole nation is watching the developments anxiously as it matters to their day-to-day life and safety. Meanwhile the divide between Pakistanis who are pro-talks and pro-military operation is widening every day.
Even the ruling party is either divided or it is consciously playing the game of blow hot, blow cold. The Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar is talking as an apologist of the TTP, while the Defence Minister Khawaja Asif is blowing tough messages. The biggest opposition political party PPP is also sending out confusing messages, while its young Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is talking of taking a tough stand against the TTP, the party’s opposition leader in the National Assembly Khurshid Shah is diplomatic on the issue.
Another important leader Imran Khan is vacillating between a pro-Taliban position and a half-hearted effort to wash off his ‘Taliban Khan’ image to retain is educated middle class vote bank. He is obsessed with the Islamist narrative that Pakistan is fighting ‘America’s war’ contrary to the hard fact that had the Pakistani establishment been with the Americans in this war sincerely, it would not have been supporting Afghan Taliban’s war. Pakistan has not only provided a safe haven to Afghan Taliban leaders but has been supporting the militant insurgencies in Afghanistan. Without Pakistan’s active covert support Taliban couldn’t have been in the negotiating position today.
What would be the out-come of the talks and why each party wants talks at this crucial juncture? Let’s take up the latter first.
The Pakistani Taliban are under pressure from their Afghan Taliban Mullah Omer to postpone their ‘Jihad’ for Sharia in Pakistan’ and focus on rallying all the forces for the major insurgency in Afghanistan after the ISAF forces draw-down in summer. Most analysts agree that though Pakistani establishment and Afghan Taliban realise that they cannot take over Kabul as they did in 1996. Reason: all the world powers are not going to abandon Kabul government this time; and Pakistan would also not like a strong Taliban control in Afghanistan.
Pakistani establishment from the reports I gathered has realised that Afghanistan can become a haven for Pakistan Jihadi groups if the country is controlled by the Afghan Taliban. Don’t forget the fact that contrary to American claims that Al Qaeda has been operationally weakened in Afghanistan, its main leadership still hangs around our country and more importantly its ideology is live and is flourishing among the Islamist groups, uncontested by the state.
On the hand, Sharif’s government has too many Islamists in rank and file. Its prime concern is to keep at least Punjab safe from terrorist activities which might increase many times if a military operation is unleashed against the TTP. This is their Faustian choice.
The military establishment it appears wants to clear the deck before the ISAF forces leave and a more pro-India government takes over in Afghanistan after the coming elections there. It’s also apprehensive that Afghan Taliban insurgency assisted by the Pakistani Jihadis after the ISAF forces leave can bring Pakistani forces to face the Afghan National Army (ANA) who may use the right of hot pursuit against the insurgents. Skeptics view the talk about military and Sharif government being on the same page as hubris.
Next, the most asked question by the Pakistanis and all the Pakistan-watchers is will the talks succeed? So far the chances are slim. The good development is that what analysts like me have been drumming for many years that talks should be held from the position of strength is now being said by the Sharif government as well.
But the main issue is what we are going to trade off with the terrorists, who cut off the heads of our people and display it with pleasure, for stopping terrorism. TTP demand like release of prisoners is not the main demand it would only give them strength. Their other demand like imposition of Sharia infused and confused with medieval tribal customs is not acceptable by the people of Pakistan. Majority of Pakistani’s are conservative Muslims, but they are not believer of Saudiaized Islam. They believe in a modern Pakistan with more tolerant religious values which are immersed in the sub-continent Islam.
The government is faced with a hydra-headed terrorist organisation. So while the government will have to commit as one entity, terrorists have many heads like Ahrar-e-Hind and Ansarul Islam which will continue their operations. The TTP very conveniently denies that these groups are not part of their alliance.
Most probable scenario is that the talks are going to either fail in a few weeks, or even if both parties reach some agreement this accord would be short-lived. Indeed if the military operation is started the TTP and its allies will increase terrorist activities in the cities. But the fear in some middle class intellectuals that the Taliban can take over the cities is misplaced for a number of reasons. Pakistan is not Afghanistan.
Let’s look at some of the positive factors that are likely to resist Talibanisation of Pakistan as against Afghanistan.
One, ethnic and religious diversity of Pakistani society is likely to be its saving grace. Tradition of democratic struggle against military-civil bureaucracy dictatorship in Pakistan has been remarkable. Each time the military captured power it was challenged by the people on the streets of the country.
Two, Pakistan has experienced democracy, imperfect it may be, but people have stood for it and enjoy more political and social freedom as against Afghanistan which had tumbled into one form of dictatorial system to another with a weak history of democratic struggle. But in the last ten years has seen some institution building, though they are yet in nascent stage.
Two, Pakistan is economically more developed with a large urban population. The capitalist relations of production are dominant in urban Pakistan and are even penetrating the rural areas with the modernisation of farming, as against predominantly tribal relations in Afghanistan.
Three, though both Pakistan and Afghanistan are multi-ethnic countries, in Pakistan each ethno- linguist group has different religious ethos. It may be true about Afghanistan also, but Afghan Taliban who are predominantly Pakhtuns steam-rolled other ethnic groups and suppressed all the sects who were not from their school of thought which resulted in the division of the country. In Pakistan Taliban are mostly from the tribal areas and have some support of the Islamists in other ethnic groups. They do not have the support of the majority of Pakhtuns in the country. Majority of the population belongs to the Barelvi sect and there is a large Shia population also, these sects will resist Talibanisation of Pakistan.
The writer is author of What’s wrong with Pakistan? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org