Last week’s article on what it means to negotiate with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has evoked a mixed response. There are those who agree with me and others who don’t. The critics ask for alternatives — i.e., if military operations have not dented the TTP and if the state mustn’t talk to them, then we are in an impossible situation. What’s the solution?
This is a legitimate concern, but missed the entire point of my article and, more generally, tends to misunderstand the situation we face.
First, my article simply applied the fundamentals of negotiation theory to the situation, trying to lay down what it means to negotiate and how, given evidence, talks with the TTP might unfold. Reading a text is a practised exercise that must bear in mind the parameters of an argument. It’s not about wild swings of imagination.
A practised reader will not look into an article for what is not there or has been left out because it was or is not relevant to the framework. This does not mean that what has been left out is insignificant. For example, the question of how to solve this problem is not insignificant but was not immediately relevant to what it would mean to negotiate with the TTP. Of course, that question will pose itself as a next step, as it has. So here goes.
Let’s begin with a presupposition about talks. The not-so-hidden assumption here is that talks will fare better than the use of force. Going by the argument that the state has never tried talking to the TTP, this is, at best, untested. In other words, we do not know if talking will be a better option. We can only say that talking might be better which, as should be evident, immediately makes the proposition iffy.
A counterargument can be that even if this proposition is iffy, it offers a possibility which must be tested since the other option, the use of force, has already been tested and found wanting. Fair point, but there are two problems.
One, talking has been tested. There have been a number of deals, starting with the Shakai peace deal in South Waziristan in 2004 with Nek Mohammad. All the deals, except two — with the killed Mullah Nazir, and the still-alive Hafiz Gul Bahadur — were broken by the so-called Taliban.
Two, it is incorrect to aver that the use of force has done nothing to thwart the TTP. Imagine a scenario where no operations were conducted in the tribal agencies and there was no deployment of the army and FC in the area. Imagine also that the state had left the area at the mercy of the Taliban and al Qaeda elements and their affiliates. Does anyone think the agencies would be idyllic and everyone would have lived happily ever after?
Perhaps, but such a person would be in serious need of brain treatment. There’s nothing the TTP wants more than for the state to withdraw forces from the agencies. The why of this should be obvious: that’s the only way for the TTP to gain full control of the area. Not only would this be a terrible blow to the whole idea of the state’s writ, by abdicating its responsibility for controlling its own territory, the state would send out a signal to external powers that would also be disastrous for its external security.
Let me also here dispel a major misconception, generally promoted by uninformed media reporting. The Pakistani state has not deployed troops to the area for the first time. The present XI Corps was raised in 1975. Before that, Peshawar used to have one division (7 Division) which, since the British times, was part of the Northern Command based in Rawalpindi. The Northern Command HQ, after Independence, became the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army. Until the raising of XI Corps, 7 Div was responsible for the defence of the area right up to the Afghan border in the tribal agencies of Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Parachinar and North and South Waziristan, just like during the British period. When the corps was raised, another division (9 Div), based in Kohat, was added. This division’s elements were given responsibility for the southern tribal agencies and Frontier Regions (FRs).
During the Soviet invasion, the corps’ fighting elements were maintaining and manning Forward Defended Localities along the border. The fighting formations regularly trained and exercised in the tribal agencies. The Pakistan Air Force had also beefed up its presence and flew regular sorties in Fata. To say that the tribal Eden has suddenly been sullied by the presence of the Pakistan Army is, therefore, bollocks.
However, a concern remains. When these terrorist groups are squeezed in their havens, they strike in the cities. Countering urban terrorism is the other prong of Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy, which has only been partially successful and is the area where the actual war will be fought, requiring a discriminate, nimble hand, not a sledgehammer. The fear factor in Pakistan, as also the fatigue, is because of population dislocations and terrorist acts in the urban centres of the country.
The solution is not talks — at this stage — that won’t walk but to strengthen the state’s capacity against urban terrorism. Talks will come, as they always do. That is precisely the reason for use of force or the threat of its use: to force the enemy into talking. But the lesson remains unchanged. Talks must be conducted from a position of strength.
Finally, those expecting a neat solution must despair their belief. Irregular wars and the combination of external and internal threats do not vanish easily or quickly. They take years to gestate and many more years to put down. The choice, therefore, is not between fighting and talking as two mutually exclusive binaries. They are intertwined. But the timing must be right. And the fight itself needs to be understood correctly in all its dimensions — urban terrorism being the most important to deal at this point.
About the author: Ejaz Haider is Editor, National Security Affairs at Capital TV and a visiting fellow at SDPI