The cries of outrage over the drone strike killing Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud on November 1 have been replaced with horror over the choice of Maulana Fazlullah, the new leader for the banned terror outfit who has reportedly ruled out any chance of peace talks with the government.
Last week, after Mehsud’s death Pakistan Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan accused the U.S. of foiling the peace process and called for a review of all aspects of the country’s ties with the U.S. However, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has no intention of doing this and official sources said the matter was not discussed at all. The rhetoric of one minister cannot become a policy statement, the sources said adding it would be business as usual with the U.S.
By making an international issue of drone strikes — supported by parties like Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) — the government has taken away the real issue of terrorism from the public eye. Yet, terrorism has claimed over 40,000 lives already and the government says that Pakistan is its worst victim. When the first ever democratic transition took place, the new government under Mr. Sharif vowed to end terrorism and to this end called an All Parties Conference in September for a consensus on fighting terror. The army chief of staff too was on the same page as the government and keen on a dialogue to end terrorism. Six days after the conference, two senior army officers were killed in Upper Dir, a deed attributed to the Taliban. This was followed by five blasts in Peshawar, three of them in a week, starting with the suicide bombing at All Saints Church which caused a setback to the peace talks. Later, the Law Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was killed, making him the third member of the provincial assembly to be fatally targeted.
While the Interior Minister says the government worked behind the scenes for seven weeks to reach a stage when Mehsud was going to be handed a formal letter of invitation for talks, politicians and the media are raising questions on whether the government had a plan. For instance Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad of the Awami Muslim League has told the National Assembly that he had spoken to all the interlocutors named by the government and none of them had been engaged in talks with the Taliban. Members of the National Assembly staged walkouts on Friday and insisted the Prime Minister who rarely attends the session, take them into confidence and clarify matters on the peace talks, failing which they too would launch a boycott of the proceedings.
Mr. Sharif in Karachi said he was for the peace talks to continue despite a hardliner at the TTP’s head and he would continue to reach out. Lasting peace was the aim of the government, he reiterated.
Meanwhile parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and other groups like the Difa-e- Pakistan Council have launched protests against drone strikes and NATO supplies. Imran Khan has already announced that his cadres will be mobilised to block NATO supplies from November 20. The question that is uppermost is the future of the peace talks with the TTP under its new chief. Fazlullah has already shown what he is capable of when he and his cadres terrorised the Swat region from 2007 till the Army operation forced them to flee to Afghanistan. His men shot Malala Yousafzai last year and have been against education for girls and polio immunisation. While the new government has passed ordinances to grant enhanced powers to combat terror, it is unlikely to have any effect on the Taliban and its suicide squads.
The government is battling on several fronts. It has launched a massive targeted operation in Karachi, it is up against Baloch nationalists and it has the TTP looming over its head with fresh threats of reprisal. The TTP holds that drone strikes cannot take place without Pakistan’s complicity and already security is being tightened everywhere. After the initial outrage by the interior minister and Mr. Sharif’s moderate response, the government is yet to spell out what course of action will be taken to pursue talks with the TTP.
Political parties continue to endorse a dialogue process with the TTP but with the uncompromising Fazlullah at the helm, the government may have to weigh other options. Under the TTP, there are some 37 groups but smaller groups can hike the number to over 50. The government has a huge challenge to further the peace talks at this juncture.