Saturday, April 5, 2014

Daily Times Editorial April 6, 2014

TTP conundrum Talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) increasingly seem to be heading for a dark and narrow alley without light at the other end. Perhaps that is why Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, speaking at the death anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on Friday accused the government of the PML-N at the Centre of pushing the country back into the dark ages by pursuing these talks. Or perhaps what he meant was the possible outcome of the talks, if it favours the Taliban, would be a ‘dark’ time ahead. Bilawal also criticized the Punjab government for allegedly sheltering terrorists in the province. As far as the PPP’s ‘home’ province of Sindh is concerned, he made reference to the recent spate of attacks on and the demolition of Hindu temples in a land famed for its tolerance by saying he and his party would not remain silent on the issue. While Bilawal was railing against the PML-N government’s approach to the terrorists, reports increasingly speak of the unhappiness of the armed forces at the policy of seeking peace through negotiations with the fanatical TTP, with special reference to the release of 19 ‘non-combatant’ Taliban prisoners. The objection appears to centre round the ‘unilateral’ nature of the release, without reciprocity from the TTP of releasing civilian and security forces’ personnel being held by them. In the top level meetings on Friday, reports say the concern of the armed forces has been conveyed to the civilian leadership. Given the one-to-one meetings with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of not only COAS General Raheel Sharif but also Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafiq Butt on Friday, the indications are that it is not only the army that has reservations about the course the government is embarked upon, but the air force too, which is credited with changing the mind of the TTP about merrily going on conducting attacks and killing prisoners in their custody after the air force struck their bases and compelled them to announce a ceasefire. For one, the definition of ‘non-combatant’ has been questioned. It may be recalled the interior ministry has classified the 19 prisoners released as ‘petty criminals’, not involved in terrorism or militant actions. However, it is being argued by knowledgeable analysts that those who help, facilitate, act as logistics mules or the eyes and ears of the terrorists cannot be called non-combatants without stretching the meaning of the term to absurdity. The second concern is that those released, and those about whom release is being contemplated (a far larger number from all accounts), need to be monitored after being freed to ensure they do not go back and join the ranks of the terrorists. Whether the intelligence and security forces have the capability and capacity to do this in the midst of the myriad tasks the situation in the country demands against terrorism is open to question. What would be unacceptable is if some time down the road, it was discovered that those released strengthened the hands of the terrorists. Third, the question of reciprocity rankles, since both civilian and security forces’ hostages in the hands of the Taliban have yet to see freedom. All the TTP has to offer is the extension of the ceasefire that expired on March 31 to April 10. We should bow our heads in gratitude to the TTP for this ‘generosity’ while we await with bated breath what may follow if the ceasefire is not extended beyond the latest deadline. The Taliban demands for the release of about 800 people claimed to be non-combatants and the free zone in FATA cannot be met, and the former, even if a review reveals certain individuals fit to be released, cannot be met in the few days remaining. The uncertainty looming over the process of negotiations with the TTP is in sharp contrast with the ‘exuberant’ optimism of the government and Taliban sympathizers in the negotiation committees. It would be best to be prepared in case the process unravels and other options have to be resorted to, including the ultimate option of the use of force. The country, the government, the armed forces cannot allow themselves to be caught napping.

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