Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan must beware of negotiations with the Taliban – by Ejaz Haider

Ejaz HaiderEditor’s note: A rare piece of Ejaz Haider that one may largely agree with. Although Ejaz Haider continues to describe Taliban as TTP (ISI’s preferred discourse to distinguish between good (Afghan) Taliban and bad (Pakistani TTP) Taliban, his arguments against the possibility of a useful dialogue with the Taliban are valid. 
“On Nawaz Sharif’s desire to negotiate with Taliban” This article is an apt summation of the futility of talking with the Taliban. Readers should be informed that our policy at LUBP is not based on personal likes/dislikes or vendettas but on the strength of the arguments applied and it resonates with objective ground realities.

Nawaz Sharif, prime minister-to-be, wants to negotiate with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Let’s see how negotiations work and what this means. In other words, we shall not dismiss outright the idea of negotiating with the TTP but shall, nonetheless, put it to some test on the basis of the fundamentals of negotiation theory. Consider.

There are two broad frameworks for negotiation: distributive and integrative. The idea is simple. How is the pie to be divided? It is important to note that we are presupposing — as is always done in a negotiating process — that both or all parties have reached a point where they believe they can better advance their interests through talking rather than acting unilaterally. We also believe that there is, or can be found, a bargaining zone.

Please note that while we cannot dismiss the possibility of one or more sides entering into negotiations to buy time or using the process to regroup and gain strength, we are deliberately not factoring in that possibility in our hypothesis. In any case, if that were to happen the parties will be thrown back into conflict and the process of negotiation will come to an end.

Our hypothesis then can be put forward thus: the state (of Pakistan) and the TTP have decided that neither can defeat the other through unilateral action and, therefore, both must get down to talking. Also, that both sides will talk in good faith and not resort to strategies that could derail the process.

This essentially signals one thing clearly. Since the TTP comprises non-state actors, the state has already conceded that it has been unable to put it down. So, even if the TTP cannot defeat the state, the two sides come to the table with the state having accepted that it has lost its monopoly on violence. In other words, it has been deprived of one of its central traits.

Put another way, while the TTP may not have defeated the state, by not allowing the state to win, the TTP has dispossessed the state of its domination.

The next step will be distributive. Who will get what share of the pie? Because once the state concedes its inability to retain its monopoly on violence, it has to enter the process of give and take. And what it can take, in theory, must be less than what it possessed before the conflict began. For the non-state TTP, whatever it can get is a gain against the state.

It must, therefore, be clear to Mr Sharif, as also to those too eager to talk to the TTP, that negotiating with that entity without forcing it to seek peace unilaterally and then talking to it, means the two sides come to the table as equals. If the coming government is comfortable with that thought, we shall continue to the next stage.

Such negotiations cannot be integrative — i.e., the two sides cannot increase the size of the pie. They have to be distributive. What will the state bring to the table? We already know what the TTP’s demands are. They have been made abundantly clear and start by rejecting the very basis of the Pakistani state and its institutions. Is the state prepared to do that?

What is the nature of the terrain in the bargaining zone, accept if we do that such a zone in fact exists? Mr Sharif will have to figure out the space between the state’s minimum reservation point and the TTP’s maximum reservation point — and, vice versa.

The army chief says talks are possible if the TTP lays down arms and accepts the writ of the state. Unless he is rejecting the very idea of talks at this stage, which would be smart, this will not work. Why would the TTP accept the writ of the state when the latter’s desire to negotiate terms with the TTP means precisely that the state has lost its writ because it has been deprived of its monopoly on violence?

Essentially, this means that once the state, without bludgeoning the TTP and forcing it into talks, concedes that there is reason to talk to the TTP, it cannot dictate terms, even as it can put across its position.

The two positions, at the opening gambit, are incompatible. But wait. Can we focus on interests rather than positions, trying to figure out what it is that motivates the TTP? Perhaps. Let’s assume, against evidence, that the TTP doesn’t want to conquer Pakistan ideologically. That all it wants, before its cadres lay down their arms, is for Pakistan to change international course in the region. Can the state, under Mr Sharif’s watch, afford to do that, given that it bespeaks of international isolation and even possible conflict with the United States and its allies?

I doubt it. If anything, considering what Mr Sharif has been saying, he wants to integrate Pakistan into the world, not isolate it. And by the looks of it, the TTP is not prepared to accept even the state’s minimum reservation point, let alone the maximum.

I hear dissenting whispers about fighting our own people. This argument is bogus at worst; misplaced at best. The TTP’s agenda is to isolate Pakistan and to spread its exclusionary ideology. There are also more than sotto voce pronouncements about negotiating with the TTP because even America is talking to the Taliban. This not only shows a pathetic lack of understanding of the two situations but also indicates how little people generally know about the TTP and what it stands for. How it came into being; what groups comprise it, its agenda and how it gets funded. But we shall leave that for some other day.

No matter how one looks at it, one can’t find the bargaining space so essential for negotiations to succeed. In which case, would it not be instructive for Mr Sharif to not give voice to a course of action that he might not be able to take?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2013.

Update: Nazir Naji criticizes Nawaz Sharif’s proposed dialogue with the Taliban.