The writer is a senior journalist and has held several editorial positions including most recently at The Friday Times. He is currently senior adviser, outreach, at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute
Just before 2012 drew to an end, one of the terrorist groups in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan conglomerate offered conditional talks to the government. Some in the commentariat, who have raised obfuscation and petty lying to the level of fine art, were quick to point to the ‘generosity’ of the TTP and said that the ball was now in the government’s court.
This is bollocks, deliberate and dangerous. Consider.
First, those insisting that the government take this offer are implying that the TTP is a legitimate entity that the government and, by extension, the state should negotiate with. This would be laughable if it were not so pernicious. The TTP includes criminals, extremists and terrorists. Some, let it be said clearly, are in the pay of hostile intelligence agencies. They are not the Afghan Taliban that Kabul wants to talk to and it is deceptive to put them in the same category. For ‘respectable’ journalists to ‘advise’ the government on the TTP means the government should also start negotiating with, and give legitimacy to, all manner of kidnappers, robbers, felons and murderers.
Were it to come to that, we might as well bid goodbye to this state and to ourselves as a society.
Second, talks with preconditions? In plain English, it is called dictation: do this and that and we will stop attacking you. Implication: don’t do as directed and we will continue to attack and kill people. Submit and you will be spared. Because once these terrorists have got what they want, through fear and coercion, this state and society will be at their mercy anyway. Their spokesmen in the media are surely referring to this act of generosity. There will be no pain after that.
Perhaps. But what about subjugation; the relationship of lordship and bondage; the loss of our values and common human decencies? Far from the pain being over, it will be the beginning of it, a hellish experience without respite.
Third, we have to ask ourselves why this particular group, led by Hakeemullah Mehsud — the most murderous of the groups that form the TTP — wants to talk. They are being squeezed. They stand discredited. Their brutality has isolated the Pakistanis. The group is posturing, presenting itself as ‘reasonable’, relying on the obfuscators in our ranks to confuse the people, hoping everyone is sick of this violence and will take this ‘olive branch’. If the government rejects the ‘offer’, the people will blame it for forcing the TTP’s hand.
Such moments are crucial. As I wrote in 2009 in The Friday Times: “It is important to understand the nature of this war and … what counterinsurgency expert Robert Thompson called ‘playing for the breaks’. The ‘breaks’ refer to ‘changes in the situation at the international, national and local levels … generated by critical errors made by an insurgency’s leaders’”.
These errors fall in two categories: original sins and situational errors. But errors made by terrorist groups are not enough in and of themselves to put them down; they must be leveraged by the state in its favour.
That’s what we have to do, play for the breaks. We did that in Malakand when Fazlullah overplayed his hand. We have to do it again. But mere indignation is not going to solve the problem. This year must see a serious coordinated effort to tackle this challenge and doing that requires not just more effective military operations, important though they are, but also an effective counterterrorism (CT) strategy.
It should be obvious that the reprisals come in the urban centres where the military cannot be of much use. The war in the periphery has brought these groups to the centre. The war has now to be waged in the centre to put them in a nutcracker. That is where the police and civilian intelligence agencies come in. We have neglected them so far. That has cost us dearly. The cost will rise exponentially the more we delay doing that which is required.
We need effective laws dealing with detention, interrogation and surveillance; a reconfigured force for countering urban terrorism, trained and equipped to that end; an umbrella organisation to coordinate CT ops; a mainframe with NADRA and other databases to expedite investigations; an effective civilian intelligence agency dealing with internal security, as opposed to leaving that job to the ISI; the restructuring of the ISI itself; enhancing the capacity of the police which is currently performing security duties for the VVIP and has inadequate manpower and equipment for policing and CT functions; training intelligence analysts and developing a specialised cadre; a parliamentary committee overseeing internal security and intelligence functions to ensure there are no excesses and so on.
This is neither an exhaustive list nor is it in any specific order. There are reports dealing with making the police effective. They are instructive and rely on the expertise of several police officers with long careers in the service. They should be utilised. Pakistan can also ask for help from other countries that have done well fighting drug cartels and terrorism. The world is ready to help if we are prepared to stop hemming and hawing and get ready to roll up our sleeves to deal with this menace. Of course, that presupposes that we are interested in formulating and implementing a national security strategy instead of acting like a headless chicken.
As matters stand, there can be no talks with the TTP. The TTP groups have to lay down arms, submit to the Constitution and the laws of this state, renounce violence and seek society’s forgiveness for gratuitous bloodletting. Until then, their sympathisers in the commentariat and certain political parties wanting to talk to them should shut up.
Finally, the TTP wants the Constitution to be brought in conformity with the Sharia. Indeed! And pray, what Sharia would that be? Theirs? Because so far, they have even killed those Islamic scholars who have dared tell them that they are not qualified to be exegetes and their lumpen interpretations of religion are not only flawed but deliberately deceptive.
Published in The Express Tribune