Confusion worst confounded

Confusion worst confounded
The confusion in The PMLN government over anti-terrorism policy persists. It is not clear at all why PM Nawaz Sharif is still reluctant to declare all-out war against the Tehril-e-Taliban Pakistan despite a consensus in state and society that the Taliban pose an existential threat to Pakistan.

PMLN spokesmen argue that without the backing of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government that has borne the brunt of the TTP and will be the first to face the blow back of war, it is not wise to give the green light to the army. That is why, the argument goes, Mr Sharif has been so keen to woo Imran Khan to his side. But the truth is that the PM is afraid of a TTP backlash in the Punjab that has thus far remained unscathed. He knows that the Punjab police and administration are in no position to prevent this from happening and is afraid that his showcase chief minister and province could both be derailed from continuing apace with their “development” work, with adverse consequences for his own federal government.

But this argument doesn’t wash. The TTP’s long-term goal is to link up with the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda and establish a Taliban emirate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With every passing day, this Afghan-Al Qaeda Network (AQN) becomes stronger and more deep-rooted. Indeed, after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the chances are that it will progressively become the dominant force in the region by sweeping aside the Karzai regime. In the event, FATA will become part of a Talibanised Afghanistan that doesn’t recognize or acknowledge the Durand line border with Pakistan. Then it will become impossible for Pakistan to maintain a distinction between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP and any attempt by the Pakistan army to defend its borders or cleanse its territory of foreigners will plunge it into a conflict with the AQN. The outcome of such an encounter would be worse from Pakistan’s point of view than that of the US-Karzai regime in the current circumstances. Therefore it is better to face the limited challenge now and make the necessary short-term sacrifice resulting from a backlash than to postpone the day of reckoning when the chances of success against AQN would be nil.

The government’s decision to replace the old negotiating committee, which was a mixed bag of ex-army, ex-bureaucracy and media types, with a new one studded with bureaucrats is baffling. Bureaucrats are trained to follow rules and procedures. They are averse to negotiating risky ventures. This committee is even more likely to endorse a deadlock than the previous one. What then?

A hint is available from a shift in Imran Khan’s position. While he is still saying that this war has been thrust on Pakistan by America (the truth is that Pakistan and America were, jointly and by turns, witting partners in the Afghan imbroglio), he is now admitting that Pakistan should talk peace with those Taliban who want peace and make war on those Taliban who want war.  Earlier, his position was that under no circumstances should Pakistan launch any military operations against the TTP regardless of how many attacks were launched by the TTP on Pakistani security forces and civilians. Apparently he has now been persuaded that some Taliban groups can be induced to switch over to the government’s side and he is keen to support a policy of divide and vanquish.

The moving force behind this assessment is Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who has insisted on a policy of engaging the TTP in peace talks from the outset. It may be recalled that two months ago Chaudhry Nisar boasted of a secret back channel plan to negotiate peace with important sections of the TTP. But this, he says, was “sabotaged” by a couple of drone strikes which “provoked” the TTP to launch a wave of attacks on soldiers and civilians that left over 150 dead in two months, never mind that there hasn’t been a single drone strike in two months and the TTP’s murderous attacks are continuing even as its spokesmen are claiming a “ceasefire”. Chaudhry Nisar is back in the saddle, singing “patriotic” hymns to the TTP and lauding their pro-Pakistan credentials. If there was any doubt about his central role in advising the prime minister and fashioning TTP policy, it should be settled after he recently drove the PM to Imran Khan’s house on the hill. Whether you’re looking for a small or large loan we’re here to help.

The military’s position in all this civilian hand-wringing shows increasing signs of impatience, frustration and even anger. Military managers have been whispering as much to the media. They say they are angry and want to fight and degrade the TTP. But, they say, the civilians are playing games, and wasting time because they are more worried about the personal threat to their families and themselves than to the existential threat to Pakistan.

This is a bad situation. Events are likely to overtake the government and its interlocutors.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.