To act or not to act against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, that is the question. It has finally dawned upon the PMLN government that the consequences of inaction are taking an irreparably heavy toll of state and society. Khawaja Asif, the defense minister, admits the hour is nigh for a forceful decision.
Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the home minister in charge of anti-terrorism strategy, is the key man. Last month he was frothing at the mouth against the American drone strike against Hakimullah Mehsud that “sabotaged” his “carefully drawn up peace-talk initiative” with the TTP. Now, in the face of relentless attacks by the TTP, he is ready to admit that those Taliban who have spurned his offer of talks will have to be dealt with sternly. But by the government’s own admission, only six or seven groups out of some 60 or so have indicated a dubious willingness to talk. This means that, for all intents and purposes, talk of serious peace negotiations with the TTP is off the table.
Imran Khan, the spoke in the wheel, has also changed his stance visibly in the aftermath of TTP attacks on the army and polio workers. He is now making a distinction between “good” Taliban (those who are amenable to peace talks) and “bad” Taliban (who are carrying out the attacks). Much as he hates the PMLN and wants to extract maximum mileage out of the PM’s indecisiveness and discomfort, even he can’t pretend after the TTP’s continuing attacks on the army, police, media, polio workers and innocent civilians that the TTP comprises “misguided souls” who need some tender loving psychiatrist care.
The mood in the media has also changed. The Taliban have issued a 29 page fatwa criticizing media houses, owners and journalists and put out a hit list. Two terrorist attacks have claimed the lives of several innocent journalists.
Last but not least, GHQ is seething with rage. The army has retaliated against TTP strongholds in Mirali with punitive might without a thought for civilian casualties.
Can we therefore predict that a military operation is on the cards against all Taliban strongholds? Can we expect the prime minister to address the nation and tell us why he has been compelled to take off the velvet glove and reveal his iron fist?
An ominous wind is blowing. The army has long agitated for an appropriate law to tackle terrorism in such a manner that the dividends of anti-terrorist operations in which hundreds go “missing” are not squandered at the altar of weak laws, incompetent prosecution and fearful courts. In consequence, the government has finally promulgated a Protection of Pakistan Law under which the law-enforcement agencies will have wide-ranging powers to detain, arrest and prosecute terrorists. This is akin to sweeping legislation enacted by countries most hit or threatened by terrorism like the US, UK, India, etc. The idea behind pushing through the law is to strengthen the hand of the military and administration in the fallout of the impending military operation in which hundreds, nay thousands, of terrorists may have to be rounded up.
But there is a serious problem at hand that threatens to weaken our resolve. This is related to a crusade in the Supreme Court against the secret military agencies of the state that are responsible for the “missing” persons of Balochistan and FATA. The timing of the new legislation – the SC is exerting enormous pressure on the military to cough up the missing persons or face censure from the court for disobeying its orders – has seemingly annoyed the judges. Justice Jawad Khawaja, who heads the SC bench hearing the missing persons case, has reacted to the news of the new law by saying the bench will take a hard look at the law to determine its constitutionality. Clearly the bench is suspicious that the new law may have been devised partly to thwart the heroic efforts of the SC for three years to find the missing persons and restore their fundamental rights to them.
This potential conflict is fraught with serious consequences for state and society. If a new military operation is dependent upon a new law but the new law does not meet with the approval of the SC and is struck down or diluted, a state of acute tension between key stakeholders of the state – the judiciary on one side and the military and government on the other – may arise. In consequence, the first casualty will be the war on terrorism. Indeed, the end result of such conflict may compel the military to take unilateral, ad hoc punitive action in which no captives are taken, which would fall far short of the required full-fledged anti-terrorism strategy in which all key stakeholders are on the same page.
The conclusion is clear. The PMLN government must build an efficient and trustworthy working relationship with the military, media and judiciary if it seriously wants to tackle terrorism in the country.