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Illusions of peace

A brave woman by the name of Rehana Haleem, the sister of one of the men involved in the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, spoke up during a CNN interview last November: “Please tell Malala that I apologise for what my brother did to her. I’d like to express my concern for Malala on behalf of my whole family.

I pray that she recovers soon and returns to a happy and normal life. I hope Malala doesn’t regard me and my family as enemies. I don’t consider Attaullah my brother anymore.” This was the voice of a woman from a brutally misogynistic society. If only the politicians of Pakistan could muster up similar courage, they would not be bending over backwards to appease the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Yet another All-Parties Conference aimed at initiating peace talks with the TTP was held amid fanfare in Islamabad on February 28. The convener, this time round, was the redoubtable leader of the JUI-F, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. While the meeting was still in session, it was business as usual for the TTP. Four schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were bombed to smithereens that day. This act, executed with the ruthless precision of the Gestapo, brought the number of educational institutions destroyed by the outfit since 2007 to more than eight hundred.

The gruesome pattern of violence was in evidence again on the conclusion of a similarly ill-advised multi-party meeting held exactly two weeks earlier by the Awami National Party (ANP). The outcome was a set of vague proposals in which the word ‘terrorism’ featured only once, and that too in the context of compensating family members of terrorism victims. But even this was contemptuously rejected by the TTP, which immediately targeted the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister in a failed suicide bomb attack.

In December, immediately after the assassination of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa senior minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour, it seemed that the ANP had resolved to roll up its sleeves and take on the TTP. A statement was issued boldly affirming that “extremism and terrorist violence is a threat to the very existence of the country…it will be an exercise in futility to appease the terrorists.” But the enthusiasm faded rapidly, as was evident from the formulation in the final communique issued by the APC convened by the party on February 14.

The subsequent Fazlur Rehman-organised conference, attended by all political parties except Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-Insaf, conjured up a five-point declaration. Its central feature was the expansion of an existing JUI-F-sponsored tribal assembly into a Grand Jirga for negotiations with the TTP. Maulana Fazlur Rehman was jubilant. His purpose had been achieved. He triumphantly told the media that he had been vindicated because his party’s tribal jirga had morphed into a broad-based national forum. What he did not say was that this platform would serve the JUI-F well in its objective of emerging as the dominant political force in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas prior to the coming elections.

The final communique scrupulously avoids the use of words such as ‘terrorism’ or ‘militancy’, and neither does the term ‘militant’ appear in the text. The document goes even further and accepts the TTP as one of the major ‘stakeholders’ that should have a role in determining the future course of events in the country. This was gleefully acknowledged by the TTP spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, who said: “Our political shura held a meeting and welcomed the summit of all political parties regarding talks with the Taliban. The political parties, by avoiding the word ‘terrorism’ in their joint statement, gave a positive signal.”

What the TTP cannot be faulted for is a lack of realism. In the same statement, Ehsanullah Ehsan virtually brushed aside the high-profile politicians who participated in the APC as nonentities, adding: “Since real power rests with the Pakistani army, therefore we are waiting for a response of the military authorities.”

The TTP spokesman was even more brutally frank when, on February 25, he described Interior Minister Rehman Malik as a “comedian.” He compared Malik to the Pashto comedian Ismail Shahid and added that the TTP could not take any of his statements seriously. A Peshawar-based analyst observed wryly that the remark was inappropriate because “Ismail Shahid is a talented man and should not have been compared to a clown!” He was referring to Rehman Malik’s claim after the February 16 carnage in Quetta that the backbone of terrorism had been broken, as was evident from the arrest of 30 Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) activists!

Commenting further on the APC declaration, Eshanullah Ehsan said that it was encouraging that the participants had unanimously reposed confidence in the “tribal jirga” and had authorised it to talk to the Taliban. He affirmed: “We are from the Pakistani nation and they are from us. We waged jihad for the implementation of Shariah in the country and the Pakistani people are fully supporting us in this struggle.”

In other words, the constitution of Pakistan, as the TTP has made clear on several occasions in the past, is un-Islamic and has to be replaced by the TTP’s own interpretation of religious laws and tenets.

Five days later, on March 3, the deafening sound of exploding bombs shattered the serenity of early nightfall in Abbas Town, a densely populated Shia residential area of Karachi. Forty-eight people, including little children, women and the elderly, lost their lives and more than 150 were critically injured. But the police and Rangers were nowhere around because they had been assigned duties for the protection of VIPs who were feasting at the Mohatta Palace, a heritage site, where a PPP lawmaker had decided to celebrate her engagement.

The carnage continued the next day when snipers opened fire on people returning from the funeral of those who were killed a day earlier in the bomb blast, ruthlessly killing Shia mourners. The unmistakable fingerprint was that of the LeJ, an offshoot of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba, which re-emerged as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), only to be proscribed yet again by the government. But despite this, the leader of the outlawed group was one of the participants in the JUI-F multiparty conference.

A few days earlier, his henchman in Karachi, Aurangzeb Farooqi is reported to have openly bragged: “I shall make the Sunnis so strong against the Shias that no Sunni will even wish to shake hands with a Shia……They (Shias) will die their own death. We won’t even have to kill them. We will make it hard for the Shia to even breathe…” The actual slaughter was left to the LeJ.

The origins of the terrorist groups in Pakistan are traced to Al-Qaeda, which was formally launched in Peshawar on August 11, 1988. Its initial objectives were based on jihad against the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan, and then against the US-led west. The jihad was subsequently broadened to include the ‘near enemy,’ namely, the pro-west Islamic regimes. The process began with the assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak and the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad in 1995.

On a parallel plank, starting from the late 1980s, Al-Qaeda surreptitiously encouraged extremist groups in Pakistan to slaughter Shias, but kept itself away from this hideous enterprise because it did not want to diminish its stature to that of a sectarian outfit. Even this was to change in 2006 when Al-Qaeda in Iraq, under the local leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, started the massacre of Iraqi Shias.

This is what defines the terrorist enterprise in Pakistan. It is a conglomerate headed by Al-Qaeda in which the TTP, the Afghan Taliban, the LeJ and other groups are components. The objective is the establishment of an Islamic emirate, and the grand jirga established by the Fazlur Rehman APC may well turn out to be the vehicle that could be used by the TTP to promote its ambitions.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly.

Email: iftimurshed@gmail.com

S.Iftikhar Murshed, "Illusions of peace," The News. 2013-03-10.