If the talks with Taliban succeed, we may see a metamorphosis of the Pakistan state: TNS’s interview with Ayesha Siddiqa

Ayesha Siddhiqi, Defence and military specialist at IIC- photo by Ruhani KAur

The News on Sunday (TNS): How does the government’s approach to counter terrorism through talks look like to you — a compromise, a time buying tactic or you expect something substantive to come out of it?

Ayesha Siddiqa (AS): The only substantive thing that may come out of the talks (and, mind you, I am not using substantive positively or negatively) is change in the overall nature of the state. If the talks succeed, we may actually see a metamorphosis of the state from a hybrid-theocracy, which it is at the moment, to a complete theocracy. The Taliban and their allies, including both good and bad militants, want implementation of sharia in Pakistan. Even if there is an agreement on limited implementation in parts of the country, it will eventually trickle down to the rest.

Everything will depend on how far the military and civilian leadership wants to go in accommodating the Taliban demands. Although a more important question would be how comfortable is the leadership in changing the nature of the state. The Taliban may not want to compromise on anything less than implementing sharia — also release of prisoners, which means adding to the militant force that aims at capturing the state.

So, if we have made up our mind to surrender, there is no way anyone will challenge the Taliban. If not, then yes, some form of conflict is inevitable.

Like many people, I’ve also heard an operation is inevitable. But, I’m not sure. Because, how can an operation take place with your backs against the wall. When some generals in GHQ, Rawalpindi, thought the 1986 Indian military exercise Brasstacks was a plan for war, General Hamid Gul and some others disagreed. They argued that India could not launch a war with its back totally exposed and vulnerable. This was with reference to the insurgency in East Punjab back then.

Similarly, how can we think of an operation when we have all kinds of militants sitting in our heartland, in Punjab and Sindh. I’m not just referring to Jamaat ud Dawa Wahabi (JuD) and Jaish-e-Muhammad Deobandi (JeM) but also TTP Deobandi and Lashkar e Khorasan Deobandi, allegedly part of al-Qaeeda and has men that were once part of JeM. These organisations are thriving in Punjab and Sindh. They even have links with the politicians and military establishment.

So, if we can’t take care of our own backyard, how will we launch an offensive.

I’m not even sure if the military has a plan to abandon the good militants/Taliban. The good Taliban are connected to the bad Taliban by blood, friendship and alignments. You can’t separate the wheat from the chaff. If we want to use some of them after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, we can’t really be serious about launching a serious operation. Or can we?

TNS: The much-hyped talks with the TTP Deobandi seem to be taking place in a state where people’s views are divergent, where the enemy is lost, murmurs of caution are unheard, the pro-talk, anti-talk voices are jarring. In such a situation, where people are united against each other, what is the solution to the problem of terrorism? Do we need unique solutions or does anyone have any solutions?

AS: There are many on the streets in Pakistan who actually sympathise with the Taliban. Recently, I travelled around Punjab and met many young people who see no problem with talking to the Taliban. They think there is nothing wrong with the demand of sharia. The problem is, did we ever try to show them the other side of the Taliban? We waste precious resources in making films like Waar that only address an English-speaking crowd, when we could have achieved much more by using television and radio with less money to relay stories of victims of terrorism — to convince the people that Taliban is not just about love of Islam; they bring a lot of blood and brutality to the society.

So, I’m not sure if we have tried enough to clear the cobwebs in people’s minds and put them on the right track. Unless we have that clarity no solution will work.

If you go around, you will also realise that the society suffers from information deficit despite access to a large number of information sources. This is both good and bad. From the perspective of changing the way people think, all we need is an information battle — to change how people think.

TNS: Terrorism in Pakistan has a symbiotic relationship with religion. Of late, you have taken the position that we need to engage with religious forces. Would you also advocate engaging with the people who are waging attacks in the name of religion?

AS: What I mean by engaging with religion is to produce a narrative using religion that counters what the Taliban and their allies argue. Why do we think there is a single interpretation of religion? I think that we need to engage with religion to argue and prove to the common man and ourselves that what the Taliban are selling is not the only perspective. Secularism is a concept based in Islamic history. Bring all those notions out and you may be able to fight the war against the Taliban on their own turf.

TNS: What do you think of the composition of the talks committees appointed by the government and TTP? No government representative is on the government committee and Taliban do not have any of their own representatives. So, who is actually negotiating the peace deal?

AS: Maybe the government is still divided on how to pursue talks… Perhaps, the composition of the government committee is meant to give confidence to the Deobandi Taliban — and actually surprise them with an attack. But, do you think they will not know if a battle is being prepared for them? There will be evidence if the military wants to launch an operation. In that case there will be more terrorist attacks.

Thus far, the argument against an operation is that it brings more conflict to the heartland. Actually, I’m not sure if the government and military has developed the foresight to plan an operation or have the will to wipe out militancy. They may not even need an operation. Surgical strikes may just reduce the militants in size. Such operations will require coordination between the military and the police. I don’t see that happening at the moment. So, wonder if the choice of actors to negotiate means anything.

TNS: Though Nawaz Sharif is determined to pursue dialogue with the Deobandi Taliban, the military seem to be more inclined towards the use of force. You think both the government and military are on the same page on this issue? What will be the role of the military in peace talks?

AS: I think both the military and civilian government are on the same page, about not launching a serious operation. The PML-N government is certainly not too eager because it has ideological and political stakes in the militants. The military does not seem too keen either; else, it would show at least some seriousness in sharing intelligence with the police and building it up to thwart militants present in the heartland.

TNS: Imran Khan has decided to distance himself from the Taliban by declining to be part of the Deobandi TTP team. Nonetheless, would you agree that his nomination by the TTP confirms his pro-Taliban leanings? How will the PTI-TTP relationship take shape from here on?

AS: Imran Khan is very confused about religion. He suffers from romanticism about religious narrative without understanding what he is saying and means. I think his claims have backfired for him and he will be cautious in future. I am not sure he will go very far.

TNS: Would you give any weight to Fazlur Rehman’s proposal for jirga for talks?

AS: Fazlur Rehman is basically a religious broker. He buys and sells what suits his interests. The call for a jirga may be nothing but just that. Also, the jirga today is different from the jirga of before the 1990s. The jirga then comprised of Maliks that respected the state. After we managed to get rid of all the Maliks, the new generation does not respect the state. Even if we did bring in the jirga, we will not get results that favour Pakistani state. Under the circumstances, it means benefits for just the maulana and his friends.

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