Despite the concerted efforts by the government to hold talks with the Taliban no progress in negotiations were made possible. Embryonic offers by the government were equally muted by the insoluble conditions put on the negotiating table by the Taliban. Rather than working towards a middle ground, repeated attacks by the militants have killed many soldiers, police officials, members of the media and other civilians, including school children, and have now left the army nothing but a limited military operation in North Waziristan. Not underestimating that there might be reprisal attacks in the towns and cities as a reaction from the militants, the army has undertaken the assessment that these collateral risks far outweigh the dangers inherent in stalling the process.
Proponents of negotiations begin with the premise that neither the government nor Taliban can resolve the conflict with each other in any meaningful way. Realistically, the government will never be able to eradicate the Taliban or its offshoots. Similarly, the Taliban have no serious chance of fundamentally uprooting Pakistan. This does not mean there might not be significant damage along the way. A long war of attrition by the Taliban could exhaust the army, cause damage to a significant chunk of the economy and, not least, lead to the death of innocents caught in the crossfire. Arguably, the conflict with the Taliban cannot take place in a vacuum. It inevitably engages other actors and countries, which adds to the general instability caused by conflict. There is a risk that coming generations may inherit an inordinately expensive and unending conflict, in lives and resources. Hence, it is also worth leaving open the possibility of a diplomatic or political solution in the subtext of this military intervention.
It is unfortunate that the question of whether to negotiate with the Taliban often comes up at moments of crisis, when the government is at its lowest point of leverage. This is to say, the government is much worse poised to negotiate with the Taliban when the threat of violence is immediate than during times of relative calm, when state power and intelligence far outstrip the means of terrorist activities. Particularly contentious is Peter Neumann’s assertion that “A government should begin formal negotiations only after the terrorist group has declared a permanent cessation of violence, which is directly contradicted by Jonathan Powell’s declaration that “It is always an error to set a precondition to a negotiation”.
The main criticism to negotiation with the Taliban is that it encourages them to repeat their acts. However, it is not negotiation per se that encourages terrorism, rather the degree to which the Taliban are able to achieve their demands by negotiation. Effective negotiations can begin when the parties perceive themselves to be in a mutually hurting stalemate and see a way out. While it is commonly accepted that absolute terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or the Taliban may not come to the negotiating table, there have been many instances when some groups of this ilk have joined in the conciliation process, particularly the Irish Republican Army. These groups may not be interested in negotiations but want to cause maximum harm. They gain publicity through a high level of casualties rather than the media attention during negotiations.
Political analysts identify three questions: who, when and how. The ‘who’ refers to the nature of specific terrorist groups i.e. a government needs to assess ideology, propensity to violence and internal cohesion before committing to a course of action. ‘When’ refers to the timing of negotiations in terms of strategic juncture, perhaps when the terrorists have recently suffered a tactical or operational setback. The ‘how’ refers to the actual format of the negotiations ideally a broad, multi-pronged agenda, which can convince the terrorists to strip violent practices and adopt democratic insight. In Northern Ireland, this was achieved through encouraging the participation of Sinn Féin in the democratic process.
In broad terms there are two ways for governments to deal with the threat posed by the militants. One may be the war model, which sees terrorism as an act of war and exercises military rather than law enforcement assets to deliver a maximum force response and proactively searches for militants wherever they seek refuge as opposed to the reactive, minimum force employed by the criminal justice model. The war model makes negotiations more likely, though the problem is its high economic and human cost, and the uncertainty of its open-ended commitment. In contrast to the war model, avoiding the legitimisation of terrorism is a key aim of the criminal justice model. However, this can also backfire, as was demonstrated by the Bannu jailbreak in 2013.
Given the proliferation of terror negotiations have become an essential tool in the counter terror armoury of every nation. Negotiations with terrorist groups are part of a holistic counter terrorism strategy. Favourable results from negotiations exist when governments can activate reliable channels of communications with a coherent and dominant terrorist leadership who have reached a strategic juncture in their campaign. Where possible, the government should use a criminal justice model over a war model but should be open to the possibility of limited political concessions. Of course, these conditions are rare. However, they are more likely to manifest if dialogue is maintained. As Jonathan Powell puts it: “We had to keep things moving forward like a bicycle...If we ever let the bicycle fall over, we would create a vacuum and that vacuum would be filled with violence.”
At the time of writing, the government has appointed its four-member committee to open negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This has been a failure until now but promises a fair chance of success as government shelves away the war model towards the criminal justice model and attempts to open channels of communication without preconditions. However, the fractionalisation of the TTP and its ‘strategic delaying tactics’ do not bode well for the immediate future.
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