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Talking with the enemy

In more than a decade-long conflict between the Pakistani state and the Al-Qaeda and its inspired local militants, the initiative undoubtedly has fallen into the hands of the extremists. They are now operating from a relative position of strength against the backdrop of directionless and inconsistent government efforts to stem the surging tide of violence and terrorism. The militants are carrying out suicide attacks at will, killing innocent people with impunity and assassinating political rivals and security personnel with cold precision.

The recent offer of talks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which came at the heels of the assassination of Awami National Party (ANP) leader Bashir Ahmed Bilour, is a clear manifestation that the banned terror group has not extended an olive branch to the government, but rather declared its agenda that has no room for a democratic, pluralistic and modern Pakistan. Whatever the Taliban supporters and sympathisers may say, the terms of engagement offered by the TTP should be non-negotiable for the government.

According to TTP’s recent statement, the Taliban want Pakistan to scrap democracy, rewrite the constitution in line with their perceived controversial and oppressive interpretation of Islam, sever ties with the international community and, in a nutshell, act contrary to the UN mandate regarding the war in Afghanistan.

The execution of the 21 kidnapped Levies personnel after the talks offer should remove any doubts about the intentions of the TTP, which has successfully expanded its terror network even to the main urban centres and emerged as one of the biggest internal threats for the country.

The Pakistan Army and security personnel are the prime targets of the TTP and its like-minded groups, as are the ANP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) for they are all seen as pro-American or collaborators in the US-led war in Afghanistan. The right wing parties, which either act as cheerleaders for the Taliban or maintain a meaningful silence on their atrocities, are not on the hit-list. But they too have been warned to distance themselves from the army.

Some analysts and right wing leaders, who graciously want to forget and forgive all the crimes and carnage committed by militants over the years, see these talks as an opportunity for peace, but nothing can be further away from the reality. While the TTP is on a frontal offensive, the response of the government and state institutions is practically defensive in nature, focusing more on the security of sensitive installations and protection of top government officials and politicians.

The civil and military leadership – from President Asif Ali Zardari to the Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani – despite their routine bombastic statements on tackling the challenge of extremism and terrorism, have failed to provide a proactive joint strategy which could effectively counter the insurgents and establish peace and security in the country. It is basically a fire-fighting approach that could be exhausting and self-defeating even for the mightiest of security establishments.

It is the militants who enjoy the flexibility of selecting the target, date, time and nature of their assaults. The security personnel are on the defensive and expected to perform the Herculean task of staying alert 24/7 to prevent these attacks, which could be anytime and any place in the vast expanse called Pakistan. It is like standing under the full glare of a spotlight and waiting for an unexpected bullet from the dark.

What’s missing is the proactive approach that rests on lean, efficient and precise operations backed by organised intelligence gathering that targets terror cells, disrupts their operations and put militants on the back foot. Along with the absence of proactive counter terror operations, there are hardly any efforts to shrink the space of the narrative of extremists and militants, which should be a cornerstone in the overall efforts to combat terrorism. But unfortunately, the government, the political parties, the civil society and the media are found wanting on this front. Simply speaking, a civil-military partnership and a joint strategy to confront terrorism are non-existent.

It is no wonder then that forces like the TTP and their allies and sympathisers have managed to create a lot of fog and confusion around the real issue of terrorism, which has consumed more than 40,000 lives in Pakistan since 2002 when Islamabad decided to support the US-led war on terrorism in line with UN resolutions.

The basic question that often gets ignored in the crescendo of dissenting voices is: should Pakistan allow its territory to be used for fanning terrorism in the region and around the world by foreign and local non-state actors? If the answer is yes – which is how extremist forces would like it – then the country should prepare to brace itself for being declared a pariah state by the international community and for tougher times ahead.

If the answer is no, then the state should decisively act to establish its writ on its territory.

The arguments put forward by some of the right wing parties that terrorism is the outcome of the presence of the US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan or of Islamabad’s support to international efforts against terrorism is simplistic. Such arguments ignore the fact, by design or default, that Pakistani territory is being used by militants for their operations both here and abroad. The international community is justified in demanding that Pakistan must act against such forces. The militants have a global agenda that stands contrary to the Pakistani state’s interest and the very fabric of its society.

But mainstream political parties and the military establishment seem to have failed to grasp this fact. Their lack of consensus and focus, an unsystematic approach and the duplicity in their actions and stated positions regarding the war on terrorism have exposed Pakistan to unprecedented internal dangers and transformed the country into one of the most dangerous places in the world.

The New Year has dawned with bigger and graver uncertainties about the country’s future and its stability. The state’s capacity to launch any effective effort to defeat the terror network and establish the rule of law and peace appears dim in the coming months as political forces are gearing up for elections due sometime in the first half of 2013. This means that the paralysis or the defensive approach to counter terrorism are likely to continue until the hurly-burly of elections is over. Even after the elections, which are likely to result in more carnage given the current law-and-order situation, the new elected government will take at least a couple of months to settle down before it can concentrate on tackling this existential threat to the country along with dealing with the other pressing problems.

But does Pakistan have the luxury of time at its disposal? Can we afford this continued tragedy of delay? Haven’t we wasted enough time and precious lives in this directionless war on terrorism? And do any of the political parties aspiring to form the new government in 2013 give us any confidence that they have the capacity, ability and political will to take on this challenge?

The words and actions of the ruling and the main opposition parties hardly offer any ray of hope as the country sinks deeper into its self-inflicted crisis and appears all set to implode – not at the hands of any outside forces, but by the enemy from within. But are we prepared to recognise this enemy? 2013 again offers us this final choice with a pressing warning that there is not much time at our disposal.

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

Amir Zia, "Talking with the enemy," The News. 2013-01-01.