x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

What hope for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban?

The only successful way to negotiate with the Taliban is from a position of strength. Pakistan's government does not seem to understand that.

Pakistan elected 41 national and provincial lawmakers in a series of by-elections last month, and fortunately the voting day, August 22, passed with little terrorist activity. The lull continued for a few days after the elections, but more recently there has been a spate of attacks at a variety of sites across the entire country.

Whatever illusions people may have had about the possibility of a period without terrorist violence have been shattered. Or have they?

Since Nawaz Sharif reassumed the role of prime minister in June, the central government has been insistent about initiating peace talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). So this sudden spate of violence was, for many people, quite unexpected. But it could have been foreseen.

As I have argued in this space before, governments have to be willing to negotiate with terrorists who represent the aspirations of the people. But when dealing with the TTP, which seeks to claim political space through the use of violence and which represents the aspirations of no significant element of the Pakistani people, there should be absolutely no space for negotiations unless the government is in a position to dictate terms.

The government's release this week of seven Taliban prisoners shows that there is a will to negotiate. But there is unfortunately no productive way to talk to the TTP.

Since the Pakistan government is not in an unassailable position, there is simply no space available for negotiation.

The problem is that while the Pakistani Taliban understands this very well, the government pretends that it does not. Mr Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League reigns supreme in Islamabad, and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf controls Peshawar politically, and both parties have continued to be adamant that there can be a negotiated settlement with the TTP.

By making negotiation their announced position, both the central governing party and the most-affected provincial party merely strengthen the terrorist forces. The Taliban knows that they may continue their terrorist activity and, at a point in time of their choosing, can seek a negotiated settlement, and the government will acquiesce.

Take a look at recent events in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province: an immaculately planned jailbreak rescued 250 prisoners in Dera Ismail Khan; there was a suicide attack on a funeral in Shergarh and there have been numerous other smaller attacks every other day recently. It all paints a very gloomy picture.

And yet this cruel reality seems to have done nothing to strengthen the resolve of Pakistan's political masters. Each time the TTP offers to negotiate, they do so after another major terrorist act. If you want to stop the bloodshed, they are saying, you must give us what we want at the bargaining table.

That is bad enough, but there is another far more worrying aspect: preceding each of the recent major attacks, government intelligence agencies issued warnings that such events were likely.

Let us take the jailbreak as an example. The intelligence agencies gave top officials a first warning 72 hours before it occurred. A second warning was issued 24 hours after that.

Neither alert provided an exact date for the attack, but both said it was "imminent". The second warning outlined the exact attack plan, including where vehicles would be parked.

A meeting in Peshawar, 48 hours before the attack, evolved a detailed plan to thwart the attack, setting out the role assigned to each one of the security agencies. But for a reason that nobody can explain, this plan was not conveyed to those who were supposed to implement it.

An inquiry was ordered. Absolving the provincial government of any blame, the inquiry has identified several senior police and jail officials for punitive action.

It is, however, apparent that there was at least gross ineptitude, and far more likely collusion with the Taliban, at the provincial-government level. This is most disconcerting.

As far back as 2003, and the failed twin attacks on the then-president, Gen Pervez Musharraf, collusion of low-level police and air force personnel was discovered. But that such behaviour should exist at a level high enough to suppress a detailed anti-jailbreak plan is truly worrisome.

It is also important to work out how this affects the Taliban. They have now established their ability to penetrate wherever they want, with impunity, and this sounds a warning to all those who oppose them. Far more importantly, it places the Taliban in an increasingly strong position at the negotiating table.

In effect, the Taliban can now thumb its nose at the establishment and smile at political leaders when they negotiate with them.

A good example of the Taliban's growing power was the recent decision to proceed with capital punishment of hundreds of Taliban and other prison inmates - followed by reversal of that decision just a day before the executions were to commence. No wonder many see this as simple surrender to the Taliban's threat of retaliation.

In diplomacy, it is normal for each side to establish its maximum and minimum positions before commencing negotiations. In this situation, it seems obvious that the government must set an inflexible maximum that the establishment is prepared to offer the Taliban, and also establish an equally inflexible minimum that it is prepared to seek from the Taliban.

No government can afford to barter its own duties or the rights of its peoples to terrorists. The only successful way to negotiate with the Taliban is from a position of strength.


Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired Pakistani infantry officer