As expected, the two committees set up by the government and the Taliban respectively to kick-start the peace-dialogue have run into heavy weather. There are critics aplenty on both sides.
The criticism of the anti-Taliban lobby against the government is centred on two dimensions of the process. In the first argument, there is no need to talk to the Taliban who are being true to form and wasting time with delaying tactics and impossible demands to improve and leverage their situation on the ground in anticipation of a military operation against them sooner or later. The TTP has proven them right by continuing with its bomb attacks on civilian targets, as for example the bomb in Qissa Khani Bazaar in Peshawar last Tuesday in the midst of announcing a committee to talk on their behalf.
In the second argument, the government’s choice of nominees – all of whom are “soft” on the Taliban – has led to a comical drama. They don’t represent anyone except themselves. According to critics, instead of choosing unelected mullah-types to pacify the TPP, the PM should have appointed a six member parliamentary committee led by Ch Nisar Ali Khan and including Khurshid Shah, Imran Khan, Farooq Sattar, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, Asfandyar Wali and Mahmood Khan Achakzai, representing all major parties and provinces. Such a committee would have shown seriousness of purpose and publicly asked the TTP to send a formal delegation to Islamabad for talks. Then, if the TTP had balked, it would have been exposed, and if it hadn’t, then the All-Parties Committee would have been intimated first hand of the outrageous nature of their demands, and sanctioned the use of force to erode and degrade them before starting talks. This would have zipped up the likes of Maulana Samiulhaq and Co. As it is, the government’s committee is composed of nobodies who have only managed to trigger a grand tamasha of mullahs of all shades who are jostling for prime time on TV. A variant of this critique would have sat Imran Khan (PTI) and Munawar Hassan (JI) at negotiating with the TTP within a time frame so that when their initiatives fail to bring the TTP to its senses, then these two big pro-talk leaders would have had no option but to fall in line with the proponents of action not words.
The TTP’s critics are no less substantive. The five-member TTP committee is already in a shambles even before the ink on the TTP statement has dried. Two TTP “sympathisers”, Imran Khan and a Mufti from the JUI, have declined to accept the dubious honour; one, Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque, has distanced himself from the talks by putting forward his own pre-condition (establishment of Shariah) while another, Maulana SamiulHaq, wants assurances that the military won’t deliberately sabotage the talks. The TTP also says it has set up its own TTP committee to monitor the progress of the first committee, without explaining the need for two committees, one upfront and one secret!
Clearly, the way both sides have conducted the proceedings suggests that neither is terribly serious of exploring the talks option and both are trying to gain time and space for political leveraging: the TTP to dig in and plan resistance to any military attack on their positions, and the government to take the Doubting Thomases along at the nth minute before giving a green light to the military to do the needful. A report in the Washington Post claims that the Pakistan government has asked the US not to launch drone strikes until the talks process has been exhausted and outlived its utility so that no one can say that the US has sabotaged the talks again and the TTP cannot insist on putting an end to drone strikes on the top of its talks-agenda. That is why there has been no drone strike since December and the current period is the longest without a drone strike since a six-week lull in 2011.
Therefore an impartial case can be made out for a dramatic last-ditch effort by the prime minister to cobble a maximum consensus for military action by exhausting the talks-option. He should have acted months earlier. But an extra month of dallying hardly makes any difference now. However, the choice of committee members has cast doubt’s about the government’s sincerity.
Equally, the TTP have erred in their choice of five “outsiders” and thereby shown their insincerity in opting for serious talks. No amount of naming fresh names will obscure this cold reality. Indeed, a demand by the TTP to release key TTP leaders held by the military suggests that the whole talk-talk process is on the verge of collapse, albeit after some carefully contrived but necessary convulsions.
If there was ever any doubt in some peoples’ minds that the time is nigh for meeting force with force, the tamasha of the two committees has buried it. RIP!