Thursday, February 6, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Feb 7, 2014

And so the games begin The stuttering start to the talks between the government appointed negotiating team and the Taliban appointed team finally came to pass on Thursday when the two sides gathered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House in Islamabad. It has been reported that the talks proceeded in a cordial atmosphere, something that prompted some cynics to dub the affair a dialogue of the Taliban with itself. That may be an extreme view, but there is room for examination of the first round and the possible parameters of the negotiations in the days ahead. A joint statement followed the talks, with the points of agreement highlighted. First and foremost, both sides agreed to conduct the negotiations within the framework of the constitution. This is a significant statement since on the eve of the talks, the Taliban committee had taken a hard line that there could be no talks, let alone peace, unless sharia was imposed and the US-led forces withdrew completely from Afghanistan. However, they seem to have softened their opposition to meeting on the ground that since sharia was already part of the constitution, it could and should be implemented and there was no need to reject or change the constitution. What the Taliban and their nominees mean by sharia however is a narrow literalist Wahabi interpretation that does not find acceptance by the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Pakistan, let alone its non-Muslim citizens. The second point of the joint statement says the scope of the negotiations will be limited to the ‘troubled areas’. By this formulation what the negotiators mean is FATA and its environs only, which leaves open the question of who or what will prevent the spate of attacks all over the rest of the country. The two sides also agreed to stop statements against each other so as not to disturb progress in the talks. The Taliban committee demanded that Taliban prisoners be revealed and released. The government committee however postponed consideration of the sharia and prisoners’ release demands to later rounds. The Taliban negotiating committee wants meetings with the president, prime minister, COAS and the DG ISI. They also want the lifting of the ban on extremist organisations, first and foremost the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The government is reported to be consulting legal experts regarding the possibilities on this score. The government’s team demanded an end to suicide bombings and terrorist acts, while the Taliban committee demanded the military announce a ceasefire, which it would respond to in kind. After the first round of talks, the Taliban committee said it would convey the contents of the meeting to the Taliban. The preliminary exploration by the two sides of each other’s positions and room for convergence has not, nor perhaps could it be expected to, yielded any surprises. The Taliban committee reiterated many of the demands the Taliban have been making from time to time. The government team however could face dilemmas about the interpretation of the sharia being part of the constitution and therefore to be implemented without let or hindrance. Some observers are relieved the first meeting took place at last, which looked difficult in the past few days. What it is likely to yield however, still attracts a great deal of scepticism. In other words, the distance between the two sides, open or implied, still appears to the sceptics to be unbridgeable. A more fundamental question is whether the Taliban nominated committee has the mandate to take any decisions, and whether the nine-member council announced by the TTP to oversee the negotiations has the authority to arrive at a settlement. It should not be forgotten that the TTP is merely an umbrella group under which some 40-50 autonomous extremist organisations operate. The fractured nature of the TTP therefore raises the question whether, even if some agreement is reached, the Taliban as a whole will accept it. This fractured nature of the Taliban was in evidence when the Peshawar chief of the TTP accepted responsibility for the Peshawar sectarian bombing the other day that killed eight people. This local chief argued that since there was no ceasefire, the attack was justified. Suppose a ceasefire is agreed, if it remains limited to ‘troubled areas’, attacks could continue in the rest of the country, casting shadows of doubt on the efficacy of the negotiations process. It would perhaps be wise to watch the next rounds (assuming they take place) of the talks before coming to firm conclusions, but on past and present evidence at least, the room for scepticism is growing, if anything.

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