Friday, February 21, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Feb 22, 2014

Tit-for-tat is not a strategy The government is being described as having run out of patience with the continuing terrorist attacks even as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is ‘engaged’ in talks with the government. What is said to have tipped matters over the edge is the killing of 23 FC soldiers who had been held by the Taliban since 2010. They were mercilessly butchered and their bodies thrown on a roadside, according to the video released by their murderers. Earlier, an attack on a police bus that killed 13 policemen in Karachi had started the process of a rethink on the government’s part. The response to the FC men’s butchery saw the government and its committee refusing to continue the dialogue unless and until the TTP stops all terrorist activities, i.e. a ceasefire. Meanwhile the aerial bombardment of training camps and other bases in North Waziristan and Khyber Agencies has yielded a crop of foreign fighters, mostly Uzbeks, killed, arms and ammunition dumps and a bomb-making factory in Khyber destroyed. The armed forces empasised that these were precision strikes to keep collateral damage down and have proved effective enough, along with the government’s firmer stance, in persuading the TTP and their apologists to now plead for a resumption and continuation of the dialogue. Tactically, at the moment then, the initiative lies with the government and the military, and the ball is in the TTP’s court to provide an acceptable response or the talks are off. The only caveat with the government’s newfound ‘spine’ is that it remains tactical, not strategic. Talk of a ‘befitting response’, ‘teaching lessons’ and demanding those interested in a dialogue isolate themselves from the recalcitrants and abandon violence smack more of a ‘tit-for-tat’ approach rather than any well thought through strategic posture. In such a scenario, the strategic initiative still resides with the Taliban, since they can choose when and where to attack next. Retaliation, even with overwhelming force as in the North Waziristan and Khyber bombardments, will remain limited in its effect. Clearly, if the government spokespersons’ statements are read with care, what comes through is that the government still hopes the Taliban will see sense and return to the negotiating table sobered and willing to meet the government side halfway. Whether this pious hope will come through or not, only time will tell. Judging by the Taliban’s track record and ideology, it will remain a fond hope unless by some miracle the Taliban suddenly change overnight, an unlikely prospect, to put it mildly. Arguably, what the government is insisting on now, after the bloody events following the start of the talks, i.e. a ceasefire, should have been the first and irreducible demand for even starting the talks. Surprisingly, the government has protested to and asked for the help of the Afghanistan government in tracing out and punishing the killers of the 23 FC men since there are unconfirmed reports, according to the foreign office, that the incident took place on Afghan soil. The Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs, Mr Sartaj Aziz, has reportedly taken up the issue with his Afghan counterpart at the SAARC meeting in Male, reminding him of the agreement at the trilateral summit in Turkey recently that enjoined both Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent their respective nationals from attacking across the border either way. This demand appears fruitless and ironic. Fruitless because if the incident did take place on Afghan soil, it was probably located in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan near the border, an area controlled by the Haqqani network and where Maulana Fazlullah and some of the TTP have reportedly found a safe haven. The Afghan government’s writ in that area is tenuous at best. Therefore relying on the Afghan authorities to deliver the murderers is wishful thinking, even if it is assumed Kabul is serious about helping the Pakistan side. Ironic because Pakistan conveniently turns a blind eye to its own role over four decades in providing safe havens and means of attacking Afghanistan from Pakistani soil. This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, if ever there was one. The tragic death of the 23 FC soldiers is a case of Pakistan’s chickens coming home to roost for all the interventions and misery it has caused to its western neighbour and its people. The government and the military authorities need to understand that what we are facing is a protracted war, in which not one but a series of military operations will be required over years to combat an enemy that is organized in small groups, is elusive in that terrain, and prepared to fight until it is convinced of the fruitlessness of its cause. This will require strong political will, and a strategic, not tactical or retaliatory approach to the terrorists’ activities.

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