The entire world has been waiting for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to articulate his government’s plan for dealing with the scourge of terrorism that has not just eaten into Pakistan’s vitals but remains a threat to other countries as well. It was hoped he would do so in a national address last week, his first after taking charge of the country in June. Disappointingly, Mr. Sharif seemed to have little to say that inspired hope. He accurately described terrorism as an existential threat to his country, but appeared confused on how to deal with it. He spoke in several voices, saying the government was prepared to do so by dialogue or through the use of force, ultimately suggesting that the best option was to talk with those who had chosen the path of violence. Pakistan’s new political leadership evidently remains under the illusion that the Taliban and the array of militant groups allied with them across the country can be persuaded to rejoin the national mainstream. Considering that these elements killed more Shia Muslims in Pakistan last year than at any other time before, tried their best to scupper this year’s elections by unleashing bloody violence, and declared they had no belief in democracy, the most charitable explanation for Mr. Sharif’s vaguely outlined half-plan is that it is naive. His cabinet’s defence committee, which includes the Service chiefs, subsequently decided that any talks would be conditional on the militants laying down arms. There is no word on what the plan is if these groups, as is most likely, refuse to disarm.
For one with a progressive vision of friendship with India, which too he reiterated in his speech, it is unfortunate that Mr. Sharif has been unable to bring similar clear-sightedness to his views on terrorism. Terror constitutes the single biggest threat today to peace between the two countries and the region. It is the groups raised by the Pakistani state for proxy battles in Afghanistan and India that are now striking terror within Pakistan. With his mandate and constituency, and his apparent determination to reset the civilian-military balance, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader is uniquely placed to convince his people that militant groups are certainly not part of God’s army. Certain sections in Pakistan may still harbour the illusion that some groups retain a strategic utility, but the country really has no alternative but to turn the lights off on them — all of them — decisively. Nor is there any time to lose in this task: the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan is about a year away. By acting now, Pakistan can ensure that the consequences for itself and India will be better than current predictions.