Monday, March 3, 2014

Daily Times Editorial March 3, 2014

Ceasefire? The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) announcement of a one month ceasefire, ostensibly to give the stalled peace talks another chance, was punctuated by the attack on an anti-polio team in Khyber Agency that left 13 people dead and 11 injured. Most of the dead and injured were from the security detail accompanying the anti-polio team. This incident happened despite the TTP’s statement announcing the ceasefire ‘advising’ all its affiliates and sub-groups to respect the decision and not carry out any attacks. The episode highlights the problems underlying talking to the Taliban when it is far from certain just how much control the TTP exercises over its ‘franchisees’ and sub-groups. A recent example of this phenomenon was the beheading of 23 FC troops by a local group in Mohmand Agency, a horrible crime against helpless prisoners just when the nominated negotiation committees of both sides were engaging in probing the way forward. The massacre led to the suspension of the talks by the government, with the condition that it would not be restarted unless the TTP declared a ceasefire. Since that condition has been met, at least on paper, and the TTP has quietly dropped its earlier preconditions for talks of the army’s withdrawal from FATA and the release of (non-existent as it turned out) women and children prisoners, it would be logical to assume, and there are indications to this effect, that the resumption of the talks is now on the cards. However, this time there are demands from various quarters that the talks should be conducted directly between the government and the Taliban, rather than the rather cumbersome channel of the nominated committees of both sides. If this comes to pass, a question mark will arise over the future of these committees. What may ease the path of direct talks are the media reports that speak of certain ‘guarantees’ having been extended by the government to the TTP, which may include the safety and security of any negotiators the Taliban may choose to talk to the government. On its part, the TTP says the government must take the talks seriously and stay away from ‘mundane’ politics on the issue (whatever that means). Almost all the political parties have welcomed the TTP’s announcement of a ceasefire, with some expressing reservations too. While the other leaderships have concentrated on the ceasefire announcement, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s is the ‘lone’ voice of condemnation of the attack on the anti-polio team. It is as though the other parties chose to shut their eyes to the ‘bad news’ so as not to rock the still precarious boat of the impending breakthrough. Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI-F wants another All Parties Conference, while Zahid Khan of the ANP, a party that has been in the crosshairs of the Taliban for years, doubts the sincerity of the Taliban and argues that there is no guarantee that different groups under the umbrella of the TTP will stop their attacks. Certainly the attack in Khyber Agency lends weight to his concern. Before we wax lyrical about the current development, it may be salutary to reflect on what may have brought about the apparent ‘change of heart’ amongst the Taliban, and what may follow. We have argued in this space that negotiations must be conducted from a position of strength, not on one’s knees. The effective blows struck by the military at Taliban bases in FATA in recent days cannot be ignored as perhaps the main factor that has led to the ceasefire announcement. It may be that the TTP is hurting from the strikes and needs a breather to regroup and find ways and means to avoid the damage the strikes have wrought. Regrouping and strengthening themselves during pauses in fighting as a result of peace deals has been the pattern for many years of the Taliban’s tactics. Whether this pause will be any different only time will tell. However, the state cannot let its guard down and must continue with its preparations, post haste, of a new and effective security architecture that will better place the government and the security forces to combat whatever the TTP may be planning to throw at them in the future.

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