Is Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif serious about peace talks with the Taliban or is he just playing games? The next few weeks will tell.
For the first time in six months, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a dramatic appearance in the National Assembly on January 29 and announced that his government would pursue peace talks with the Taliban. This comes despite a recent spate of attacks that have killed scores of people. Only a day earlier, Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, had said that his group was serious about peace talks if the government showed willingness. Naturally the first step would be to arrange a ceasefire and for both sides to observe it.
Prime Minister Sharif said that his government wanted to give peace another chance. In order to show his seriousness, he announced the formation of a four-member committee to hold talks with the Taliban. The four include his Advisor on National Affairs Irfan Siddiqui, veteran journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, former ambassador and expert on Afghanistan affairs Rustam Shah Mohmand and former ISI Major (retired) Amir Shah. All of them have expertise in the area and some have good contacts with the Taliban as well, such as Yusufzai and Amir Shah. If the government is sincere, the choice of the four-member committee is a good sign. The committee would be assisted by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.
In making the announcement that was broadcast live on television, Sharif called on the militants to also observe a ceasefire. He said “terrorism and dialogue cannot go together.” He pledged that he would personally supervise the performance of the committee, adding that he was sincerely trying to restore peace in the country. He has the support of all the major political parties that had called for talks following an All-Parties conference last September. As preparations were underway to make contact with the Taliban, the Americans killed Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in a drone attack near Miranshah in North Waziristan. It was clear that the Americans did not want Pakistan to hold talks with the Taliban.
Hakimullah Mehsud’s death propelled Mullah Fazlullah, a firebrand militant, to the fore and the Taliban made him their leader. Fazlullah had gained notoriety in Swat from where he fled into the neighboring Kunar province of Afghanistan, following Pakistan army operations in Swat in 2009–2010. He has been conducting terrorist attacks against Pakistani targets from there ever since. It is also well known that Fazlullah has close connections with the Afghan intelligence agency. Whether he would be willing to talk peace with the Pakistani government is yet to be seen.
Following a spike in terror attacks last month, there have been renewed calls to take steps to bring the country’s violence under control. There was widespread speculation that the government would launch military operations against the militants in North Waziristan. The military option is most vociferously peddled by Pakistani secularists and television anchors, most of whom are on the US or Indian payroll. They do not want peace in Pakistan. It would not be easily achieved but nearly 10 years of fighting and tens of thousands of lives lost, this option needs to be explored, and in earnest.
Pakistan has been fighting America’s war since 2001. It has suffered immensely both in manpower losses and financially. Its infrastructure is ruined. Estimates about Pakistani losses range from $80 billion to $100 billion. These are astronomical figures for a country with an annual budget of a mere $34 billion and Gross Domestic Product of $231 billion. The US never misses an opportunity to remind Pakistan that it has given $12 billion in foreign aid over the last 13 years. This is peanuts compared to Pakistani losses in a war that has been foisted on Pakistan by its mercurial benefactor.
The Americans talk as if this money was given as charity completely ignoring the fact that Pakistan has been providing facilities — military bases, transportation services as well as other services — to the US. As a consequence of the close alliance with Washington, Pakistan has turned large segments of its own population against the state. The endless cycle of violence is the direct result of this policy.
Important segments in Pakistan want this policy to end. Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) has been vocal in demanding that there should be talks with the Taliban. He has been accused of being an appeaser. Some have dubbed him “Taliban Khan.” Those that reject peace talks have nothing to offer except more of the same that has led to so much violence and bloodshed. Endless fighting and killings are not the answer. Dialogue and negotiations are held with one’s enemies to try and resolve differences. There is no guarantee that they will succeed but in the absence of an alternative strategy and the failure of military action, peace talks must be explored and given a chance.
Prime Minister Sharif said he desired “that dialogue should be open and transparent. I appreciate the proposals of opposition leaders.” He was responding to points raised by leaders of the two major opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and PTI. He made a special reference to the inclusion of Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former chief secretary of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province whose name was proposed by the provincial government for inclusion in the four-member committee. “I hope Rustam Shah Mohmand will continuously be briefing Imran Khan and KP government on the progress of dialogue [with the Taliban].”
It is too early to tell whether this latest proposal would get very far or too be derailed as were all previous attempts. There is the added problem of defining who constitutes the Taliban. There are scores of groups, many of them common criminals who have found the Taliban label useful to extort money by kidnapping people. American and Indian agents masquerading as Taliban also need to be accounted for and brought to justice. Would they allow any progress to be made in the peace talks?
There are many imponderables but unless a genuine attempt is made to seek peace, there would be continuous turmoil. The present uncertain situation and lawlessness cannot continue indefinitely.