Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has offered the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to sort matters out by playing a cricket match. It is truly astounding that someone holding an important official position at such a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history could make such cavalier remarks. The TTP swiftly rebuked his offer not just verbally but also by attacking several targets in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including the Iranian consulate and cultural centre in Peshawar, killing two Frontier Corps (FC) soldiers. The interior minister owes an apology to the families of the thousands killed at the hands of the TTP, including the ones that very day when he carried on with his loose talk.
Casual remarks like Mr Nisar Ali Khan’s indicate how poorly the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government is handling the war of words even as a military action against the TTP seems increasingly inevitable. For over a month, after the now botched negotiations with the TTP had started, the Pakistani electronic media showcased assorted clergymen and rightwing nuts spewing conspiracy theories, downright bigotry and total nonsense. The ostensibly centre-right PML-N seemed to have abdicated media space to the virulent rightist fringe. What passed for the government’s response was the incoherent mumblings of the PML-N leaders. Were it not for the TTP overreaching, as it had done in Swat, and continuing its vicious spree, especially against the security personnel, perhaps the talks might still be going on.
Pakistani public opinion seems to be turning against the TTP despite the PML-N’s horrible handling of the narrative, not due to it. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must put his house in order for selfish reasons if nothing else. No matter how religiously conservative society gets under the mercantile capitalism of the PML-N variety, it is still incompatible with the TTP’s austere and violent sharia. It is not every day that the Pakistan army is predisposed to take action in North Waziristan (NW). Mr Sharif should count his blessings and grab the moment.
While the TTP’s chosen surrogate, Mr Imran Khan, taunts the PPP, ANP and the MQM for not launching the NW operation on their watch, the fact remains that the former army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, virtually stonewalled any action there throughout his tenure. Even when the overwhelming evidence pointed to the “internal existential enemy”, which General Kayani had become fond of mentioning in his speeches, was using NW as its logistic sanctuary, he refused to budge. The reasons given ranged from the army being stretched too thin between domestic operations and the eastern frontier to insinuating, through friendly media persons and politicians, that the terrorist groups being harboured in NW “protected the western flank”. An unannounced agreement with the Haqqani terrorist network (HQN) and a proclaimed one with Hafiz Gul Bahadur still hold.
Whether the incumbent COAS, General Raheel Sharif, will roll back the Kayani-era policy, and if so to what extent, remains to be seen. Is there a General Sharif doctrine in the offing to roll back the fanciful strategic depth and the blowback it has unleashed? I wouldn’t hold my breath. However, some tactical posturing is clearly a departure from the days of General Kayani and the former ISI boss General Ahmad Shuja Pasha who described madrassas (seminaries) preaching jihad as their freedom of opinion. What the army is formally and informally putting out for public consumption suggests a focused operation against the TTP in NW while leaving the HQN and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group alone. While the knee-jerk reprisal attacks against the TTP go on, a paradigm shift in military thinking, which discards the arbitrary distinction among the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban, does not seem imminent. The security establishment has not put even half the effort in dissipating this flawed and highly dangerous notion of good/bad Taliban, which it created post-2007.
The Pakistani policy still appears to be that the good Taliban, a la the HQN, Mullah Omar’s gang and Hafiz Gul Bahadur’s group, etc., will eventually move to and/or focus on Afghanistan after the US withdraws. The presumption also seems to be that the bad Taliban of the TTP variety can, on the other hand, be forced to negotiate or restrained through sporadic punitive action. Inherent in this premise is a calculation that the ‘good’ Taliban will not come out on the side of the TTP. The idea perhaps is to capitalise on the fissures within the TTP and between the TTP and other jihadists in NW. Some of their reluctance may actually be a serious capacity issue with the Pakistani forces to prosecute an asymmetric war against a guerilla enemy. Like the US military, and the Soviets before that, the Pakistani army doctrinally and operationally remains a conventional force and counterinsurgency its Achilles heel. However, unlike the US and the Soviets, the Pakistani security establishment is responsible for creating the mess in its own territory. Not even the army knows how many like their Kashmir jihadist Major Mast Gul, who has claimed three recent terrorist attacks in Kohat and Peshawar, are on the loose today.
The sooner the Pakistani military and civilian leadership realises that there is no such thing as a good cancer, the better. Pakistan cannot unleash Mast Guls on the world and expect to remain immune to the contagion they spread. The NW operation is imperative but more important is to realise that bloodthirsty terrorists cannot be invited to play cricket. The TTP and its ilk have thrived in the ideological space provided to them through such kid-glove treatment. Merciless killers cannot be called ‘our own people’. The only thing worse than the TTP atrocities is dignifying and legitimising butchery through the so-called peace talks. Now that the talks travesty has met its only logical fate, Mr Nawaz Sharif would be well advised to muzzle Mr Nisar Ali Khan’s ilk. The TTP will again try to gain respite and divide public opinion by trying to engage in talks but there should be a limit to how many times the government falls for their ruse. The TTP, Mr Nisar Ali Khan and Mr Imran Khan had their chance to negotiate peace and they blew it. As he rolls out his weak prescriptions on national security policy, the prime minister has to take charge now. The waffling has to end. As Pakistan inches towards action against the TTP, even if a limited one, the message to the terrorists must be clear, consistent and stern.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets @mazdaki