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Playing with fire



By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, February 07, 2014


Has the government conceded its authority over territories where the TTP says it will provide security to its negotiators?

“We are as eager to enforce Sharia as the prime minister is for peace talks,” Ehsanulla Ehsan, a former spokesperson for the TTP, told a Peshawar-based journalist hours after the outfit tossed up its nominees for talks with the government.

It also resonated what his slain boss Hakimullah Mehsud and another TTP ideologue Omar Khalid Khorasani made clear on several occasions. In a video message released on several jihadi websites on March 20, 2012, Commander Omar Khalid had the Taliban seek to overthrow the Pakistan government,  and replace the current system of governance with the Sharia as the supreme law of the land. “We aim to counter the Pakistani government, its intelligence agencies, and its army, which are against Islam and have oppressed the Mujahedeen,” he said.

Ehsan’s tone radiated a strong sense of triumphalism – at least the way the militants view the government’s move. By nominating a four-member committee to talk to the Taliban, the government essentially conceded its authority over territories where the TTP says it will provide security to the negotiators.

Is the talks initiative doomed because of certain inherent contradictions? It is certainly fraught with risks, if not doomed to fail.

Firstly, not only did TTP indulge in chest-thumping over the government’s move towards the talks, it virtually snubbed the toothless four-member committee by proposing names of persons who are part of, and believers in, the state of Pakistan – ex-senators Samiul Haq and Prof Ibrahim, Qari Kifayatullah, and Imran Khan. The non-state TTP expected these state-actors to represent its violent agenda and by implication support the demand for an Islamic emirate in Pakistan.

Anybody agreeing to represent the TTP in talks with the government practically exposes his or her deep-seated ideological empathy, if not love for a terrorist outfit.

Secondly, by nominating Imran Khan, the TTP ostensibly attempted to discredit Khan, whose quest for talks has largely been misunderstood as being pro-TTP. The glee and jeer that Khan’s nomination in anti-PTI ranks also smacked of petty-mindedness of mainstream politicians.

Thirdly, the TTP knew that a JUI-F leader would not be amenable to the presence of JUI-S chief Maulana Samiul Haq in the TTP committee. Neither would the JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman swallow the insult of having been left out of the entire process from both sides.

So, it was a clever, thoughtful move by the TTP to create divisions within the religio-political right, and malign the PTI.

Fourthly, the government’s negotiators do not seem to be on the same page. Will Samiul Haq agree to travel to the “lion’s den”? Will Rustam Shah Mohmand or Rahimullah Yousufzai take dictation from Samiul Haq and or Irfan Siddiqui?

Also, some of them don’t have their heart in the exercise because they believe that political parties themselves should have taken charge of the matter. It is ironic that the government absolved itself of the responsibility, by picking up negotiators from outside the 542-member parliament. Sharif either did not find a single trust-worthy member of parliament for inclusion in the committee, or intentionally kept the entire parliament out of it, knowing this move will not make much progress.

If the government moved on this premise, and would like to peg a military crackdown to this failure, then it probably did the right thing.

Fifthly, the entire episode allowed the TTP to put up a show that was brinkmanship at best. Most observers familiar with TTP leaders and its media managers believe that the group most probably is not interested in talks at all. That is why they nominated representatives from within the state of Pakistan and then set up a nine-member committee – comprising people most of whom are wanted on multiple criminal charges – to monitor these representatives.

The enigmatic talks initiative unfolded to the context of an imminent crackdown on terrorist outfits in Waziristan. Following a series of meetings with the General Headquarters (GHQ) leadership, immediately after the terror wave between January 16 and 20, including attacks on security forces in Bannu and Rawalpindi, the prime minister had reportedly principally approved the launching of a decisive military action against the Taliban. But Sharif surprised almost everybody when he announced before the parliament that the talks were being given a last chance. He did not want the pro-talks politicians to blame him for resorting to the military option without having exercised the option of talks, insiders claimed.

The gauntlet the TTP threw at the government for talks by nominating their committee from within Pakistan should also be seen in the context of the outfit’s desire to enforce Sharia across Pakistan.

Since Pakistani state institutions will most probably never give in to such a demand, the talks are doomed to be a non-starter. Neither the government nor the TTP have been serious about such a meeting of minds to find a middle ground. We should all get ready for tough decisions and tougher reactions.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk