Last week, the Nawaz Sharif Government seemed all set to announce a military operation against the Pakistan Taliban after a high-level security review and Prime Minister Sharif met the chief of army staff.
On Wednesday, when Mr. Sharif came to the National Assembly(NA) after many months, there was much expectation of a formal announcement. His 20- minute speech outlined the problems faced by Pakistan on the terror front and he suddenly announced that terrorists must be given another chance.
He constituted a four-member committee to take the dialogue forward and said the government was making this peace offering since the other side had shown some interest in talks.
He did not name the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and referred to them as terrorists. He made it clear that terrorism and talks cannot go together and said terror strikes must end. That was a day when a suicide bomber targeted the Rangers office in Karachi and bombs went off elsewhere.
The attacks haven't stopped while the TTP is said to be holding consultations on a plan of action. Special assistant to the Prime Minister and journalist Irfan Siddiqui, one of the four committee members, is tasked with briefing the media and also coordinating with the Prime Minister.
On Friday an optimistic Mr. Siddiqui said that the TTP should inform them about their team so the process can start. He said the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government too was on board as was everyone else and they were only waiting for a mechanism from the TTP to start talks. The meeting can take place where they are comfortable, he said. While not setting a time frame he said it could be a matter of weeks not months and years.
The process, however, will begin only after the TTP responds, otherwise the government will have to resort to a Plan B. There is much skepticism about the future of these talks as one attempt last year almost never took off in the real sense. There is also the question of a ceasefire and if the TTP will consent to this while thetalks proceed if at all.
It was significant that three out of four members of the committee were from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Mr. Rustom Shah Mohmand is the nominee of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government.
Mr. Mohmand told The Hindu on the phone that the success of the talks would depend on what kind of mandate the committee was given. It should have sufficient flexibility and the government would have to clarify on various issues and points of negotiation.
For instance the release of Taliban prisoners, the issue of foreign militants, compensation package for the surrendered militants. The other side also needs to have trust and if there is an accord, will the government implement it? The government should also watch rival groups carefully who may try to sabotage the peace process.
Calling for a ceasefire would be premature unless some genuine and meaningful contact was established, he pointed out. Military operations earlier have not resolved terrorism. Now the government seemed to have everyone on board for a possible operation except perhaps Imran Khan whose party,the Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) is in power in KP.
Mr Khan was the one who has been harping on a dialogue from the beginning saying the army operation won't work. But last week he too looked as if he had come around. After Mr. Sharif spoke in the NA, Mr. Khan raised the issue of the need for open talks and also demanded that the media must be kept in the loop. He also insisted on a time frame. While a time frame was not conceded the Prime Minister was all for transparency in the talks and sharing it with the media.
The ball is very much now in the TTP's court and there are reports that it has welcomed the talks and is holding a meeting of its Shura to decide a course of action. This time the government is not taking any chances with secret mediators. It has appointed a four-member committee with a former ISI operative in it, it has promised to keep the media informed and it has set no real preconditions for the talks as yet except for saying that terror strikes have to stop.
Questions remain on what this committee and the TTP will talk about since in the past the terror outfit has refused to lay down arms, or abide by the Constitution and wants to bring the Sharia law all over Pakistan. That's a bridge the committee will cross when it comes to it, says Mr. Siddiqui. In the circumstances, that may be a bridge too far.