A terrorist attack in a church in Peshawar has added more than 80 to the grisly death toll of recent years in Pakistan. Yet the country’s leadership is in disarray about how it should respond to this ghastly act because of a reluctance to call out the reality, which is this: in a deep arc from the prosperous Punjab province to the north-west, the country is in the grip of a network of militant groups; their history in Pakistan pre-dates the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11; they were set up by the Pakistani security establishment as instruments of its strategy for Afghanistan and Kashmir; they have sown an extreme interpretation of Islam which has taken deep root in the country; in order to deal with them, Pakistan needs to develop a new vision of itself, no less, both as a nation in itself and among others in the region. That vision should best come from an elected government with a huge mandate such as the one that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won less than six months ago. Unfortunately, he is yet to articulate a policy to back his declared progressive intentions.
Instead, Pakistan’s political parties endorsed an initiative for the government to begin a dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan, an umbrella organisation of militant groups, which denounces Pakistan’s democratic constitution and says its aim is to establish its own rule over the country. The TTP also wants its imprisoned cadres released before talks, and killed three soldiers including two senior officers to underline this demand. Swift to condemn these killings and talk down the peace initiative, the Pakistan Army stopped short of articulating the next step, even though it clearly has a say. The government’s confusion is now plain. While Prime Minister Sharif said after Sunday’s church bombing that it would “be difficult” to take the dialogue initiative forward, his Interior Minister fudged in Parliament that there was no clarity on who had carried out the attack. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) is under pressure from its own constituents who are sympathetic to the TTP, as well as from other parties, including Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf which rules the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, not to reverse the decision to initiate peace talks. Counter-intuitive though it may sound, all this only underlines the importance of the proposed meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mr. Sharif in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. India has been a victim of cross-border jihadi groups, but only through constant engagement can New Delhi drive home the point that Pakistan has the most to lose from the unchecked activities of terrorists.