Whether Islamabad can negotiate for peace with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan from a position of strength is a moot question

The Pakistan government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The spate of bombings targeting the security forces and the police, and the blast near the military General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, a day after the suicide attack in the Bannu cantonment, are too close for comfort. Every attack has been claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with which the government was mandated to have a dialogue for peace by the All Parties Conference (APC), at its meeting on September 9, 2013.

Within two months of the APC, on November 1, 2013, TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud was killed by a drone strike and the Minister for Interior, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, slammed the United States for sabotaging the peace process. He said at a well attended press conference the next day that ties with the U.S. would be reviewed. Some interlocutors had been about to fly to meet Mehsud with a formal invite for talks with the government, he said. Even before that, a week after the APC , militants killed two army officers in Upper Dir, and followed it up with week-long bomb attacks in Peshawar, including an attack on a church that killed over 80 people.

The TTP’s new leader Mullah Fazlullah has refused to talk to the government, if the militant outfit’s publicists are to be believed. The outfit’s recent attacks have not spared even the media. Last week, the TTP brazenly called up a television channel whose staffers it killed in an attack in Karachi to claim responsibility.

Air strikes

Blasts are occurring with unfailing regularity and the government which is putting together a draft National Security Policy can only react in shock and condemnation. The policy envisages a military operation against militants as the last option. At the APC, outgoing army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was also on the same page as the government on the need for a dialogue. The government keeps saying the army is on the same page even now, despite the constant targeting of security forces. However, there are targeted operations as in December when the security forces killed over 20 militants in North Waziristan after an army checkpost was bombed. After the Bannu attack, the army used air strikes to hit suspected militant hideouts in North Waziristan, which killed 40 terrorists, including top Taliban leaders.

The TTP is putting out conflicting statements, calling for a ceasefire first from the government side and clearly not favouring a dialogue on its avowed aim of spreading the Sharia law across Pakistan. Mr. Chaudhry Nisar, responding to the Bannu Cantonment bombing which claimed the lives of over 20 Frontier Corps men, said the government was in favour of a dialogue with those who believed in peace but it could take action against those who believed in bloodshed.

For some time now, Islamabad has been trying to make a distinction between those elements in Pakistan Taliban that favour a dialogue and those that are unrelenting in their violent quest. It brackets the two late TTP leaders, Wali ur Rehman and Hakimullah Mehsud, as those who favoured a dialogue which couldn’t take off due to their deaths. The government is under tremendous pressure to initiate action but can it negotiate for peace from a position of strength? What are the issues it will take to the table for the talks? The TTP, as the government says, has over 50 factions, making a dialogue difficult.

The unseen enemy which operates from the shadows, as the Interior Minister described the TTP, is clearly calling the shots for now.

The Opposition parties, including a vociferous Imran Khan, leader of the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI), have been questioning the dialogue process. How can talks fail when they didn’t take off to begin with, Mr. Khan asked. In Parliament, politicians have repeatedly demanded updates on the talks from the government and the response has left them far from satisfied.

Externally too, Pakistan is under fire for not clamping down on cross-border terrorism, and not curbing the Haqqani network which is engaged in fighting in Afghanistan, something the U.S. has pointed out time and again. It did not help matters that a senior financier of the Haqqani network, Naseeruddin Haqqani, was shot dead in the capital city some time ago.

U.S. funding

President Barack Obama signed a bill last week which clearly linked funding to Pakistan’s actions on terrorism and the release of Dr. Shakil Afridi who is in jail for helping the CIA track down Osama bin Laden in 2011. There are provisions to withhold $33 million unless Dr. Afridi is released and cleared of all charges.

Another provision can block aid until Secretary of State John Kerry certifies that Pakistan is not supporting terrorist activities against the U.S. or the coalition forces in Afghanistan. A key element of the bill is Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. to deal with counter terrorism efforts against the Haqqani network and other terror groups, and preventing them from operating from Pakistan.

Pakistan has already reacted with disappointment to the withholding of funds over Dr. Afridi’s release. But the other issues related to preventing cross-border terrorism are equally vital. It is significant that the Prime Minister’s advisor on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, is scheduled to meet Mr. Kerry on January 27 as part of the strategic dialogue ministerial to discuss a range of issues.

The PTI’s blockade of NATO supply lines to protest U.S. drone strikes invited the ire of the U.S., and Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, during his visit to Pakistan in December, requested the government to ensure that land routes were kept open.

He reviewed shared concerns regarding the activities of terrorist groups, including the Haqqani network, on Pakistani territory.

While Pakistan’s protests against drone strikes as a violation of its sovereignty have been raised at the United Nations, they cannot overshadow the real threat of terrorism that the country has faced for several years.

With the coalition forces set to leave in a few months and the general elections in Afghanistan, it is not a moment too soon for Pakistan to weigh its options and develop a measured response to the ruthless militancy which had its beginnings even before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. The government is aware that fire-fighting may not be the best option but in the absence of a focussed and timely strategy, it could continue to be on the back-foot in the war against terror if it doesn’t get its act together soon.

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