Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met COAS General Raheel Sharif on Tuesday, January 28, to cement the government’s resolve to finally slay the terrorists. The same day, he met with PMLN parliamentarians to obtain a green light in launching military operations against the TTP. But the following morning, as his definitive “war” speech was readied for presentation before parliament, there was a last-ditch amendment in it to give “peace” a “final chance” by setting up a four-member committee to hold out the olive branch to the TTP. That is why when the PM finally arrived in parliament and began to unfurl his agenda, it seemed as if all signals were go for war, until he arrived at the last paragraphs and took a somersault.
The PM’s meeting with the KPK chief minister a day earlier may have prompted a change of heart. The PTI remained the last hurdle in cobbling an All Parties consensus in favour of war. Therefore the nomination of three religio-political mediators from KPK, including PTI’s Rustam Shah (a fierce opponent of any military action against the TTP) suggests that the PM is covering his flanks before launching military action. The reasoning is that when, not if, the Committee fails to persuade the TTP to cease fire, the KPK-PTI will have no option but to fall in line with the war consensus.
But there are strategic problems in this tactical move. For starters, the TTP is making impossible pre-conditional demands – halt military operations and withdraw the military from Waziristan, free TTP prisoners (especially the Big 3 from Mulla Fazlullah’s Swat Group, ie, Muslim Khan, Mahmood Khan and Maulvi Umar), pay billions in compensation, establish TTP Shariah in Pakistan, etc. Then there are many unanswered questions: how much time has been given to the committee to conclude whether there can be any meaningful talks or whether the TTP is simply buying time to regroup and upgrade (last October, after assassinating GOC Swat Maj-Gen Sanaullah Niazi, TTP leader Mulla Fazlullah declared that “the negotiations with the government were a component of a war that is continuing”); what if there are divisions in the committee about what to do and how to go about it; who is the committee going to talk to if not directly to Fazlullah’s publicly nominated representatives who may or may not be upfront; what if attacks by TTP franchises continue during the talks and the TTP pretends it has nothing to do with them; And so on. In short, instead of paving the way for war or peace, the committee could sow further confusion and controversy and dilute the current consensus to respond forcefully to the TTP’s killing spree.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s reluctance to opt for full-fledged war springs from some hard and fearful realities on the ground. Topmost is an expected TTP backlash in the PM’s home province of Punjab that has so far been largely untouched by the TTP’s retribution policies. The provincial IGP has urgently advised Special Branch and Counter-Terrorist Department to be ready to face the challenge of TTP attacks on government leaders, functionaries and buildings. The problems are three-fold. First, TTP cells in the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area along with SSP franchises in rural Punjab can be activated to wreck havoc and sow fear among the police and populace. Second, the police are neither trained nor adequately equipped for counter-terrorism in the province and make a soft target for ideologically motivated suicide-guerillas fighters. Three, the province is porous for terrorists from FATA and also provides for demographic clusters of similar ethnic groups in which the terrorists can find safety and fluidity. In short, what is a dreadful reality in Karachi already could soon become a distinct probability in Punjab.
But this excuse doesn’t wash. The ruling PMLN has always known that one day the chickens would come home to roost since Punjab remains the base of all sectarian and jihadi organizations in the country. These were originally nurtured by the military establishment but have become independent or autonomous in recent years and struck out on their own with links to Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. However, successive PMLN governments in Punjab have turned a blind eye to them for politically opportunist reasons enabling them to dig roots and expand their networks, especially in the southern part of the province that is now a launching pad for sectarian terrorism in Balochistan and Karachi. Indeed, that is why it is ironic that Rana Sanaullah, the Punjab Law Minister who has always defended his government’s dubious role in allowing these non-state organs to flourish, should now come out all guns blazing against them. In an interview to a UK paper, Rana said that “Pakistan is on war footing to smash terrorists… and 174 areas in Punjab have now been earmarked for action against them”. The next day, his prime ministerial boss reprimanded him for spilling the beans!
It is time to cut the crap and get on with it if Pakistan is not to become another Afghanistan.