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A self-defeating advice

Former premier Nawaz Sharif has asked the government to hold “serious, meaningful and result-oriented” talks with the Al-Qaeda-inspired local Taliban militants to bring peace in the country. A review of his brief statement – issued on February 7 – shows that the Pakistan Muslim League-N leader is more sceptical about the role, intentions and sincerity of the government rather than those of the Taliban, who earlier this month tipped him as one of the three politicians to act as a guarantor in any talks, especially with the military establishment.

No wonder then that, while announcing his support for the talks, Sharif refused to stand as a backer of the government because of what he called its poor record. Ironically, Sharif did not mention who should act as the guarantor for the Taliban. Perhaps, the so-called ‘holy warriors’ – who kill unarmed civilians, mastermind suicide bombings, execute Pakistani soldiers in cold blood and attack its sensitive installations – are more trustworthy for him.

However, Sharif is not the first major politician who wants the government to hold talks with militants operating under the banner of the shadowy Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). All the major religious and right-wing political parties – from the Jamaat-e-Islami to Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf – have long been pressing the civil and military leadership to start negotiations with this outlawed group as if it is the main aggrieved party in this protracted conflict.

The idea of striking a deal with the local militants is also not alien for the mighty military establishment. Former military ruler Pervez Musharraf tried this route a number of times only to learn the lesson – the hard way – that the policy of appeasement doesn’t work with extremists and hard-core terrorists. Still, holding peace talks with the TTP remains a recurring theme in our national politics because of the ideological reasoning used by some political players or the belief by some that this is the only way to stop violence and mayhem in the country.

But those advocating a deal with the militants hardly define the scope and parameters of the proposed talks. Sharif, being one of the most experienced front-line politicians, should have come up with a tangible agenda while advising the government to open talks with the TTP, which is believed to be behind most of the major acts of terrorism against civilians and state institutions.

To begin with, the TTP does not recognise the constitution of Pakistan and stands opposed to the very concept of democracy. Sharif and other like-minded politicians advocating talks with the Taliban must explain whether democracy and the constitution are negotiable items on the agenda.

Secondly, one of the main contentious issues between the local militants and the authorities has been the presence of foreign extremists and terrorists on Pakistani soil. In the past, major peace accords fell apart because of the militants’ refusal to handover these foreigners. One would like to hear what alternate proposal Sharif’s party has on this issue. In an attempt to pacify the TTP, will Sharif and other advocates of these talks allow the wanted foreign militants to live happily ever after in Pakistan or do they intend to expel them?

The third important point that needs clarification is whether the local and foreign militants will be allowed to use Pakistani territory to plan terrorist attacks against other countries? Obliviously, a politician of Sharif’s stature, seen by many as the prime minister-in-waiting, wouldn’t want Pakistan to be used for global terrorism. If so, he should come clean on this while giving any talks proposal.

The fourth question is whether the government should allow militants to operate a state within a state and run parallel administration. Sharif must advise the government whether it should concede or establish the writ of the state?

The fifth issue that needs an explanation is whether Sharif wants the government to set any preconditions for talks with the Taliban? Will the militants be asked to surrender weapons, or at least stop terror attacks and suicide bombings? Unfortunately, Sharif has remained silent on this issue.

Last, but the not the least, is the question of accountability and justice. Should the state pardon the militants, forgive and forget all the killings, execution of its soldiers, attacks on military headquarters and other bases and suicide bombings that consumed thousands of civilian lives? Sharif and all those urging talks with the TTP must come clear on this.

The devil lies in the details. Any vagueness and ambiguity on the issue of terrorism and reluctance to openly condemn the killing of civilians and soldiers by Al-Qaeda-inspired local groups will further weaken the state and its institutions. The main opposition must explain its stance and should be seen playing for the country rather than strengthening the extremists through their words, actions or silence.

Since it is election year, it is understandable that Sharif would like to woo the right-wing voters – his traditional support-base and main constituency since the days of former military dictator General Ziaul Haq. But perhaps in these testing times, he should try to prove his mettle as a national leader rather than acting as just another politician focused on small-time point-scoring.

Sharif, who has been giving the right signals on many vital national issues, should not remain hostage to past politics and play his due role in defeating violent extremists, who appear to dominate the national narrative in the country. In the larger scheme of things, the Taliban’s expression of trust on him should be seen as a political liability and a drawback.

What Pakistan needs is a clarity of objectives from the mainstream parties and the military establishment on the twin challenges of extremism and terrorism. The political parties need to come up with a road map and give a vision of how they plan to confront this existential threat to the country? Whether they want to see Pakistan as a responsible member of the international community or reduce its status to that of a pariah state where non-state actors and rouge element call the shots and remain free to plan terrorist acts across the world?

The civil and military leaders must develop a consensus and come up with the much-delayed counterterrorism strategy. If the military, which is mainly calling the shots on this vital internal security matter, needs support to fight and win this war, the civilian leaders should extend a helping hand by owning this war and giving it an ideological and political impetus. The current coalition government, which is at the last leg of its rule, has in no way helped the military in dealing with this scourge because of its lacklustre approach and failure to take ownership of the conflict.

With the US-led Nato forces apparently determined to stop combat operation in Afghanistan by 2014, the internal pressure on Pakistan’s civil and military leadership for holding talks with the TTP is likely to intensify. The new elected government will have to take a clear position on this issue.

The civil and military leadership should work to establish the writ of the state which has eroded during the last five years. They must announce that taming the violent non-state actors, private armed militias and terrorists groups remain a must if Pakistan has to be saved from self-inflicted destruction. Sharif, of all the politicians, should know this better. Pakistan needs better acumen and vision from him at this crucial juncture.

The writer is editor The News, Karachi. Email: amir.zia@gmail.com

Email: amir.zia@thenews.com.pk

Amir Zia, "A self-defeating advice," The News. 2013-02-12.