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Talks at what cost?


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, May 24, 2013


The post-election Pakistan is echoing with slogans of change, reconciliation and the need for talks (including with the Taliban). Nawaz Sharif says there is no harm in talking to the Taliban. So does Imran Khan. Dialogue of course is the ultimate tool for approaching, deescalating, neutralizing and eventually ending the conflict, yet it remains a matter of speculation as to whether Imran Khan and the Sharifs completely understand the complications preceding and accompanying the proposition. This also raises a fundamental question - at what cost does the state want to approach the militants? Here, the military view is different from the civilian understanding of the issue.

In the loaded speech that he delivered on the occasion of the 'Yaum-e-Shuhada' (Martyrs Day) ceremony at the GHQ on April 30 this year, the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani made his views on the current conflict abundantly clear.

"If a small faction wants to enforce its distorted ideology on the entire nation by taking up arms, and for that purpose defies the constitution of Pakistan and the democratic process, and considers all forms of bloodshed justified, then, is the fight against this enemy of the state someone else's war?"

Herewith, Gen Kayani resonated what law officers and counter-terror experts, particularly those from multi-cultural societies such as United States, Canada, Australia, France, the UK and Germany, often ask Pakistanis at international forums. Does the state submit to the whims of a small amorphous group that is bent on hitting the interests of the state and people living therein? Does the state talk to a band of criminals turned religious militants on their terms or makes them first submit to the constitution that governs the state? While pursuing peace and reconciliation, does the state compromise the fundamental guiding principle that no individual or group can be allowed to jeopardize or threaten or attack the interests of the state and its inhabitants?

The path to talks, therefore, appears fraught with intricacies that can easily backfire. Any such move prerequisites clarity and answers to many fundamental questions, such as:

a) Will there be any conditions, or no conditions at all? If there are no conditions, will this accord recognition to the Taliban (and this stands for TTP) as legitimate stakeholders in Pakistan's politics? 

b) Wouldn't talks without conditions and approaching the TTP - a pronounced terrorist outfit that has declared war on the state - compromise the constitution? 

c) Are Taliban acting on their own, or pursuing an externally-driven subversive agenda?

d) If we agree that the TTP draws its influence and wherewithal from external sources, how will opening dialogue with them help unless the state addresses the causes that prompt outsiders to deploy proxies in response to Pakistan's perceived deployment of proxies for its objectives in Indian Kashmir and Afghanistan?

Let us first look at the nature of the threat and the constitutional view on whether and how to deal with it. Article 5 of the constitution, for instance, requires everyone living here to extend obedience to the constitution and to the state of Pakistan. Even a foreigner present in Pakistan must extend his obedience to the constitution of Pakistan. If not, this amounts to defiance and violation of the state of Pakistan. And if local individuals or groups protect and harbor such person(s) they are equal violators of the constitution of Pakistan.

How do you deal with such groups or individuals? Disregard the Article 256 of the constitution? This article prohibits raising of private armies and militias in the territories of Pakistan. The TTP is clearly a private army waging a war against the state - the way it did in Swat and South Waziristan in 2008-2009 when it ransacked and occupied police stations and FC Installations, forced the civilian administration to flee, and caused an administrative breakdown. 

Article 256 obligates the state to disband private armies and eliminate threats to the interests of state and its people. 

Secondly, right-wing civilians in particular, still insist on "extricating Pakistan from somebody else's war." This brings them in direct conflict with the army's views.

During his GHQ address, General Kayani minced no words in characterizing the current TTP and Al-Qaeda led violence as "our war." This way, the general tried to challenge those who are still projecting the conflict as America's war. He reiterated his stance during an international symposium on Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) at the GHQ on May 20.

By drawing on examples of other conflicts and seditious uprisings against the state, Kayani endeavored to clear the conceptual confusion about the conflict that the unrelenting combination of TTP and Al-Qaeda has imposed on Pakistan.

It took the army over a decade to concede that it is "our war" for the simple reason that the atrocities that the terrorists are committing across Pakistan are jeopardizing lives all over Pakistan, and hitting at the interests of the state indiscriminately. That is why Gen Kayani emphasizes the need to develop a civil-military consensus on the nature of the war and the recipe to fight it.

The biggest challenge is for the civilian and military leaders work out a common matrix on the nature of the conflict and the ways to deal with it without compromising the fundamentals of the constitution of a functional state. 

The government can invoke Article 245 for military support to deal with the violence. But will the government first define it as a law and order situation or a war against the state? The army obviously is not supposed to fix law and order, which is primarily a responsibility of the police. But if we agree it is a war on the state, will the government abandon Article 256 in favour of talking to a band of small-time criminals who use Islam to pursue their agenda?

The second challenge stems from Pakistan's old, India-centric policy and the tools it has employed to deal with the neighbor. No amount of public diplomacy will take India-Pakistan relations to normalcy in the absence of a new approach towards the causes of an extremely hostile Indian public opinion of Pakistan. Their skepticism and reservations about the presence of various anti-India symbols in Muridke, Bahawalpur, Jhang, FATA and Kashmir is rooted in history. And until Sharif or the military take conclusive and demonstrable steps in neutralizing these India-centric symbols, New Delhi as a whole will remain reluctant in engaging in any serious dialogue. The solution lies in rooting out the causes. Mere cosmetic treatment of symptoms will not take us anywhere - neither in talks with the Taliban, nor in ties with India.

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