The spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Mohmand Agency wing, Muhammad Omar Khorasani, made a ghastly claim over this past weekend about how his group had killed 23 Frontier Corps (FC) soldiers it had held captive since June 14, 2010. In his statement, Khorasani pledged to release the footage of the killing and, within 48 hours, a TTP video surfaced showing several beheaded bodies, apparently of the FC men, being dumped on the roadside. The future of the Pakistani state’s negotiations with the Taliban, which have appeared all along like the government meekly pleading with terrorists, looks uncertain at the moment. However, equally uncertain is whether the Pakistani leadership at the helm in both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and at the Centre will draw a line in the sand even now.
The Taliban’s most vociferous advocate in the political mainstream and chief of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), Imran Khan, has issued a statement condemning only the TTP’s Mohmand Agency wing for the heinous act. He has called on the Taliban Central Shura to disassociate itself from the 23 FC soldiers’ killing and announce an unconditional ceasefire to save the peace talks. No matter how coldblooded the TTP’s actions get, Mr Khan finds a way to absolve at least some of its factions of their most heinous acts including this current war crime. When the TTP denies responsibility for terrorist acts, Mr Khan readily accepts and perpetuates it, but when they clearly own up to barbarism, he bends over backwards to find an excuse for them. Never mind that none other than the former spokesman of the TTP’s central shura, the brutal Ehsanullah Ehsan, introduces Muhammad Omar Khorasani in the recent video clip. The fact that the TTP’s ringleader in the Mohmand Agency, Omar Khalid Haqqani, sits on the terrorist band’s central shura apparently is not reason enough for Mr Imran Khan to hold the whole gang responsible. That the current central shura spokesman Shahidullah Shahid has said in repeated interviews with Pakistani and international media that they are fighting to impose sharia in Pakistan and reject the country’s constitution, and that the TTP stands by its Mohmand wing’s action, is not enough to convince Mr Khan of their designs. Before October 2011, no one would have given two hoots about what Mr Khan believed but, as the chief of the party now ruling the province worst affected by terror, the smokescreens Mr Khan keeps throwing up for the TTP put the citizenry in ever-increasing peril.
Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif has not fared any better. His “strong condemnation” of the Mohmand tragedy lamented that, “such incidents have an extremely negative impact on the ongoing dialogue aimed at promoting peace”. Whether the ‘extremely negative impact’ is a euphemism for continuing the talks on the terrorists’ terms or the PM means business this time will become clear soon. What is evident, however, is that the PM does not consider the slaughter and dumping of 23 soldiers an absolute red line, which, when crossed, should have terminated, not merely interrupted, the dialogue farce. One soldier or one civilian killed in the manner the TTP has been butchering Pakistanis would have triggered an overwhelming state response elsewhere in the world. If such action by the country’s leaders was not forthcoming it could cost them their job. The Pakistani leadership perhaps does not even have a threshold in mind, which, when crossed, would force them to take action.
The TTP, as fascist as it is, has never been a monolith organised like the Nazi party. As Mr Imran Khan himself keeps repeating, the terrorist outfit remains a coalition of several groups across Pakistan. These loose affiliations and franchises serve as a force multiplier as well as provide plausible deniability when needed. For several months now, the TTP’s central shura has not been claiming or actively denying the terror attacks nor has it backtracked after owning some assaults. Several lesser known groups or regional affiliates of the TTP have claimed most attacks this year. The TTP’s tactic clearly is to keep up the pretence of talks while continuing to inflict agony on the civilians and the military. The continued attacks bolster the TTP’s negotiating position while the directionless state flails about. The TTP’s only route to power is terrorism. Theirs is a bankrupt ideology and an abhorrent creed that has given nothing but grief to mankind and they know it too. They are fully aware that they gain nothing out of the talks except some time to plan and execute more attacks. Agreeing to a constitutional system in a nation state means the death of the TTP as its leaders and cadres have known it. There is no chance in hell that the TTP is sincere about the negotiations. It will not let the talks succeed and put itself out of business.
Mr Nawaz Sharif and Mr Imran Khan can certainly claim that they have a mandate to talk peace but by no means is the mandate a carte blanche to let people get slaughtered daily as the talks go on at a leisurely pace. Mr Nawaz Sharif already squandered an opportunity for decisive action a few weeks back when public opinion was conducive to a military operation. As we discussed then, Mr Sharif ceded valuable political space to the TTP, which has been deftly utilised by their apologists to shift the debate’s focus from terrorism to sharia. Another thing that has happened is that the potential operation in North Waziristan (NW) has been presented and/or perceived as a cure all. While NW remains the logistical hub of jihadist terror, the amorphous TTP and its allied jihadists like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) operate across Pakistan. Mr Sharif must explain to the public that action in NW is but one part of a broader counter-jihadist strategy needed to stymie the tide of terror. Military action against the terrorists is inevitable but zeroing in on NW alone will not suffice, and it raises false hopes.
The tragic martyrdom of the 23 soldiers puts the onus on Mr Sharif to rally the public, nix the already botched talks and move swiftly towards inflicting a broad and befitting response on the TTP and its allies. The time for dithering and trepidation has long passed but it will take much more than his usual balmy attitude for Mr Sharif to morph into a wartime leader. Does he have it in him? One can only hope against hope.
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