Published August 07, 2008

PROBLEMS OF NEGOTIATIONS WITH THE TALIBANS

 American policies constitute a greater threat to Pakistan and had Pakistan not joined hands with the U.S., there would have been no problem with the Taliban.

 Dr. Hasan Askari

Washington

 
   The challenge of the Taliban has become quite formidable for the Pakistani state. In several tribal agencies, especially North and
South Waziristan and Mohamand, the security forces are ineffective and the Taliban have a free hand to impose their hegemony.  In the Khyber Agency, three groups are competing with each other for establishing their domain and the government is unable to control them. The Kuram Agency suffers from Shia-Sunni sectarian clashes. 

     As the government of Pakistan assigns importance to dialogue with these militant groups and tribesmen, it is working on a strategy to undertake comprehensive dialogue with the tribal people. However, there are two major problems.

     First, the government of Pakistan engaged in dialogue with the militant groups during 2004 and 2006 and signed three agreements but none succeeded in establishing peace. Another series of negotiations were launched after the present government came to power in March this year. This effort also did not succeed fully to restore peace in the tribal areas and Swat.

     Second, the militant groups are not willing to give up their arms and do not respect the agreement and the government lacks authority to enforce the agreement. They often use the peace period to strengthen their position. Further, as there are several groups competing for influence and control of the area, agreement with one group does not necessarily guarantee that others would not take on the security forces.

        The most serious problem is how to translate high flying rhetoric about counter terrorism into implementable concrete policy measures.

  Government machinery is in total disarray in most tribal areas and the security forces often shy away from asserting their authority. The losses suffered by the paramilitary troops and the army have not been fully explained by the relevant authorities, giving an opportunity to pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan to argue that most troops lacked motivation to fight the militants. 

      The government' options are constrained by the widely shared Islamic discourse on militancy at the popular level. This dates back to the days of General Pervez Musharraf's military government which maintained cooperative interaction with Islamists in order to undercut the support of his political adversaries.  This made societal space available to Islamists and militant groups who cultivated strong links in the government and the security apparatus.

        The Islamic worldview is strongly anti-American that describes the Taliban as the first line of defence for Pakistan.    Those who share this perspective are not able to comprehend the current Taliban threat to Pakistan. To them, American policies constitute a greater threat to Pakistan and had Pakistan not joined hands with the U.S., there would have been no problem with the Taliban.

      Two of the coalition partners, i.e. the PMLN and the JUIF, also oppose a tough line towards the Taliban. The PMLN pursues soft line towards the Taliban in order to secure political dividends by sympathizing with the Islamist discourse.  The JUIF has ideological affinity with the Taliban and is known for supporting them in the past, although the militant groups have now challenged the JUIF's political standing parts of NWFP. 

.        The major Taliban groups appear more confident now than ever as they are entrenched in many tribal areas and the Pakistani civilian administration and security authorities are under strong pressure. Some Taliban groups have become so confident that they outline conditions under which they can allow the Pakistani authorities to function in their areas.

     The Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan has demanded the removal of the NWFP government. Further, they have expanded their domain in the settled areas.

       Given these ground realities it is difficult to think of a shared framework for negotiations. Will the Taliban be treated at par with the Pakistani state and the two authorities will determine ways and means to deal with each other? Will the government seek their terms and conditions for allowing the NWFP government to function?

     What about their activities in the settled areas of NWFP? They have expanded their domain to several adjoining districts and openly flout the state authority and assert their power. The MMA government in NWFP (2002-2007) quietly yielded space to them. Now, it will be an uphill task for the federal as well as the ANP provincial government to reverse this process.      

     The Taliban appear to have come to the conclusion that their ideological struggle in Afghanistan cannot be pursued effectively without neutralizing or excluding Pakistani authorities from the tribal areas and NWFP.  If this is the Taliban goal, how can an ideological movement be convinced of respecting a sovereign state, especially when it is an obstacle to the realization of their ideological global agenda?  

       In principle, negotiation and dialogue should be preferred over coercion for settling problems. However, this applies to both sides. The Taliban cannot be allowed to use coercion to establish their hegemony.  As long as the Pakistani state does not demonstrate the determination and capability to push back the Taliban, the latter would  not accommodate the Pakistani state accept their terms?