Friday, April 4, 2014

Daily Times Editorial April 5, 2014

The right and left hand Reports on Thursday that the government has released 19 non-combatant prisoners produced some unnecessary confusion. The confusion owed more to lack of coordination and communication between branches of the government than anything else. Eventually the confusion was sorted out, but it left a strange taste in the mouth. Initial media reports presented the release as having been ordered by the prime minister (PM) as part of efforts to keep the peace process going. Since the PM’s Secretariat knew nothing about any such release, it initially denied the PM had issued any such orders. It would have been better if the Secretariat had first checked with the interior ministry, whose purview the peace talks and the security situation is, before rushing to the media with a denial. The interior ministry then responded to the denial by issuing a statement clarifying that 19 non-combatants in custody belonging to the Mehsud tribe had indeed been released by it since they were cleared of any involvement in militancy or terrorism. The detainees, according to the ministry’s statement, had been released in three batches, three on March 21, five on March 25, and 11 more on March 28. In addition, reports spoke of the impending release of another 100 such detainees. It took a meeting between the PM and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali, if reports are to be believed, to clarify the fog. The whole brouhaha can be rightly ascribed to the right hand of the government not knowing what the left hand was up to. Given the sensitivity of the talks process, and how delicately it is poised after the month long ceasefire by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has ended, it would serve the purposes of the government better if such pronouncements were carefully handled to avoid this kind of unnecessary controversy. One of the compelling reasons also for being careful in this regard is that parts of the media cast the affair in the hues of the PM overruling the advice of the military that prisoners should not be released, especially those responsible for the deaths of military officers and soldiers. Such reports unnecessarily put the government on the back foot, from where it has then to try and manage the fallout of a perception gained that the military still calls the shots on the matter of dealing with the militants. The facts belie such speculation. From all accounts, the military is fully on board as far as the government’s moves are concerned, and is willing to see if the government’s strategy of peace through talks can succeed, while at the same time keeping its powder dry in case it does not. The military may have offered firm advice against the ‘free zone’ in South Waziristan demanded by the TTP and rejected the release of combatants, but this hardly constitutes a difference of opinion or a civil-military divide on the issue. The gesture of releasing some non-combatants and contemplating the release of more is a move to generate goodwill and reciprocity from the TTP. So far, of course, despite lip service to the reciprocal release of non-combatants such as Shahbaz Taseer, Ali Haider Gillani and Professor Ajmal, in the custody of the TTP or affiliated groups, no such conciliatory gesture has been forthcoming from the TTP. Perhaps patience is the watchword for what is intrinsically a most sensitive affair and rush to judgment should be avoided. A protracted process rather than sudden gains is what we are perhaps undergoing. If the resolutions of the Central Executive Committee of the PPP, meeting on the eve of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death anniversary in Garhi Khuda Buksh are taken note of, they assert, inter alia, that no extra-constitutional solution to the problem of terrorism would be acceptable. They also demand that the government take all the political parties into confidence on the peace process. This is a justified demand and would also help the government if its moves enjoy the support and confidence of the political class as a whole. Ironically, the PPP wants the government to ensure the release of the three non-combatant prisoners mentioned above, now that the shoe is on the other foot. It should be recalled that the PPP could not make much headway in this regard while it was in power. Nevertheless, the best approach to the talks/peace process is to wish it well without putting all one’s eggs in that basket.

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