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A Faustian Bargain

To negotiate or not to negotiate, with the Taliban?  

That is the question, which has dogged the bruised conscience of the Pakistani nation for a long time now. The body politic of our nation has been fraught with discord and discontent about finding the adequate strategy for dealing with the increasingly existential threat posed by the Taliban insurgency and after accumulating a swelling sea of twisted bodies (over fifty thousand now) any semblance of national consensus on the issue still eludes us.

The sudden death of TTP supremo, Hakimullah Mehsud, temporarily killed, or rather droned, the possibility of any talks; however, as soon as the dust settled on that episode the negotiations dilemma has resurfaced. Until recently the collective wisdom of our political establishment, as pronounced though the APC declaration, seemed to be content with the conclusion that there was “no other option” the than the magic pill of negotiations, a position still held by a large section across the political spectrum. However, a spate of recent gruesome terrorist attacks has forced many to consider otherwise.

Yet we have been here before. On two occasions, after surrender of the Swat valley to the TTP and the GHQ attack in 2009, the acute sense of impending crisis demanded immediate action. On each occasion public opinion overwhelmingly rallied in favour of decisive military operations. The results were the successful military operations in Swat and South Waziristan. Yet the monster of TTP emerged elsewhere, stronger and more resilient, and slowly the cries for negotiations started getting louder again.

The failure to develop, or the lack of a will to develop, a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, which is bound to be complex, has been giving an impetus to the negotiations bandwagon. Yet in this seemingly altruistic scramble for negotiations have we lent any thought to what those negotiations, in the current state of conflict, will entail and what might different scenarios of an eventual end game signify?

In any armed conflict the state of the balance of power among the adversaries determines any possible negotiated settlement.  After a decade of fighting the TTP is not only alive and well but thriving. They hold sway over a vast area of land. Having proven themselves extremely adept at Low Intensity Combat, which suits the leaner nature of their structure, they have proven to be stubbornly persistent. There is never a shortage of new recruits for them and neither of money, which flows unhindered from their benefactors. After a decade of conflict, so far we have not been able to dent their strategic advantage.

So, in the current state of the conflict why would TTP negotiate? To keep harping on about the negotiations, and through such high profile mediums as APCs and parliamentary resolutions, only undermines government’s position and artificially elevates TTP’s status further.

The precedence of negotiations between the Government and TTP suggests that at best an agreement similar to, or a combination of, the Shakai Peace Agreement of 2004 and the Swat Peace Agreement of 2008 will be reached. Any negotiated settlement on these lines (most we could aim for under the circumstances) will entail a slew of compromises like release of prisoners, withdrawal of security forces from FATA, continued presence of foreign militants etc. However, despite all these compromises TTP will remain in existence and herein lays the ultimate conundrum.

Can we as a state continue to exist as a free and democratic republic, and simultaneously tolerate a standing paramilitary force amidst us whose raison d’etre is to destroy the very basis of our political arrangement?

Against the popular misconception TTP has all along been fighting only against Pakistan and her people. Apart from a couple of instances, like the bizarre Times Square episode (Faisal Shahzad fame), they have never posed a threat to the US or its forces. Their transgressions have been aimed towards Pakistan and Pakistan only. They have killed thousands of civilians, blew up school kids, prayer goers, pilgrims, health workers. They have not left anything beyond their hatred. Everything is a target in their hate filled approach and anyone not adhering to their made up version of Islam is a Kafir. Rarely in the history of ideas has any been so garishly twisted than Islam has been, in the proclamations of these 21st century zealots. Even a school full of kids is a legitimate target.

Yet our self professed guardians of morality are clamouring to leave no stone unturned in justifying their actions. Not even the most savage or primitive sets of belief allow justification for such actions. The tragedy of Islam is that all of this is being done in its name, arguably the most civilised, reason-imbued and humane religion of all.

So the relevant question here is that, should we accept anything less than a complete surrender and complete disarmament from the TTP? Assuming that the negotiations are successful (and that’s a big assumption) and some sort of a compromise is reached, there will probably be a temporary lull in violence, but eventually this middle path will come back to haunt us, I am afraid, in a much more sinister form. My worry is that our political class, judging from their complete lack of ability to see beyond their short-term victories, will habitually choose this path of compromise.

So far TTP has been busy fighting Pakistan for acting like, as they say, a proxy of the US. However, the commanding presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan will be heavily diluted by the end of this year, thus taking away the rationale of TTP’s campaign against Pakistan. Soon they will be left as an army in search of a cause. In the absence of US, as a rallying point justifying their nefarious endeavours, their attentions will turn more vigorously to their previously subdued exhortations about imposition of Shariah (Taliban style) in Pakistan.

An emboldened Taliban, who have proven their metal against one of the best armed forces in the world, might feel confident enough to carry out this much grander task. In this endeavour they will find ready ground and could easily muster support from every nook and corner of the country. The idea of the struggle for the imposition for Shariah is so powerful that people from all aspects of society will be clamouring to join their ranks; every lunatic and misogynist will have his calling. Seen in this context, the recent alarming rise in sectarian violence across the country, like the Ashura riots in Rawalpindi, demonstrate that in the face of these age old grudges how fickle our societal fabric is and how easy it is to exploit it.

This is the worst case scenario for failing to deal decisively with the Taliban problem in Pakistan. Unfortunately, as we have seen often in our history, the worst case scenarios have a habit of turning into reality. Up till now the focus of our policy makers has been very narrow and full implications for our future of the continued presence of TTP not properly comprehended. Even if we manage to avoid a full scale civil war like situation, similar to Syria’s, in the future, any lesser version of it is no less worrying.

There has to be a decisive push for putting this beast at rest once and for all, and the best time for it is now. The steaks for our future are real enough. We cannot merely wish our problems away.

This reminds me of Faust (in Goethe’s eponymous magnum opus) as he is warned of his unholy bargain:

The matter now seems turned about;
The Devil's in the house and can't get out.

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