Yet another suicide bomber targeted a Shia neighbourhood in Peshawar killing nine and injuring 50 others. The past few months have witnessed a sustained campaign of violence against the non-Pashtuns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Christians and Shias in their places of worhips and streets are being killed in large numbers. The Deobandi Taliban claim responsibility for most attacks. However, each suicide bombing meets the modus operandi of the Deobandi Taliban, leaving little doubt of their culpability in war crimes against civilians.
The Deobandi Taliban seem willing to discuss peace, yet they seem unwilling to forego their murderous devices. One wonders if they do appreciate what it really means to negotiate peace. The peace talks conducted by men who have neither suffered at the hands of the Taliban, nor have they any vested interest in seeing security improve does not hold much promise. It would have been much better to have Christians, Shias, and Barelvis represented in the dialogue for the Taliban to see that there is no escape from the reality that Pakistan remains a pluralistic society where an alien religious orthodoxy cannot be imposed with force.
While I believe that any dialogue with the Deobandi Taliban will be an exercise in futility, I still think it is necessary for some talks to take place. Not engaging in serious and meaningful talks would undermine any action that is taken later. The current proposed talks with the Taliban, however, appear to be a sham in which neither the government nor the Taliban appear to be serious. Both parties have off-loaded negotiations to non-representatives. The State-appointed four member team comprises neither politicians nor serving civil servants. The Deobandi Taliban’s representative team includes Deobandi clerics who have sympathised with the Taliban causes in the past, but they have not been part of the Taliban. Regardless of the negotiated settlement reached by the designated teams, both the Taliban and the government can veto the outcome, given that they are participating in the process only through their proxies.
I am quite certain that even serious attempts to negotiate with the Deobandi Taliban will fail to reach a meaningful resolution. Following are my reasons. First, the Taliban are a loose collection of militants who may seem to be a coordinated force, however, they are disintegrated and operate in their respective areas with little coordination with others. Negotiating with one group or a number of groups would still leave a large number of militants out of the negotiated settlement, who would continue with militancy. A likely result of such dialogues will be a settlement with a dominant group of militants who are given operational autonomy over a remote part of the country in exchange of a promise of sparing civilian targets in settled areas. The reason such negotiated settlements fail is because splinter groups breakaway from the larger movement and continue with targeted militancy in spite of the negotiated settlement.
In Northern Ireland and other places where negotiations took place between the State and armed groups, there were at least shared aspirations for modernity and prosperity. The warring groups disputed over the control of political and economic affairs, and not about the kind of future envisioned for the future generations. I grew up watching interviews of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin as they led the Irish Republic Army’s negotiations with the governments in Ireland and the UK. At no time did Mr. Adams or Mr. McGuinness speak of blowing up children’s schools or trying to kill school-age girls.
The Taliban, on the other hand, are a different breed altogether comprising mostly of illiterate or partially literate men typically belonging to a particular sect and a specific ethnicity. Their sense of right and wrong is diametrically opposed to what most educated Pakistanis want for themselves and their children. The Taliban target anyone who does not share their version of Islam, they blow-up schools because they find schooling unnecessary, they are against educating girls, they have no shame in targeting children, they target doctors and those who try to vaccinate against polio. Put simply, the Taliban have absolutely no comprehension of the modern statecraft. They want a future in which all human developments are discarded for a regressive past in which technology, logic, and freedom of belief, expression, and thought are denied. What could possibly be achieved in negotiations with such a group?
Isabelle Duyvesteyn and Bart Schuurman* have traced attempts to negotiate with terrorist and insurgent organisations. They appear less convinced of a successful peaceful negotiation with such groups. They were of the view that in fact, “military victories may offer better prospects for a lasting and stable peace.”
They found three problems with similar attempts to negotiate with terrorists. First, the negotiations may be an excuse to buy time to recuperate. Second, the negotiations may result in splinter groups of hardliners who may exacerbate violence even further. Third, such negotiated settlements often offer temporary relief, where the violence resumes after a brief lull. Thus, they favour military actions by the State to secure a victory over the terrorists.
The negotiations with the Deobandi Taliban are already off to a false start, where the Taliban and the government’s teams could not locate each other in Islamabad. Each is doubting if the other has the mandate to represent the opposing group. The members of both teams are very familiar with the Deobandi Taliban. Some members pride themselves with being the spiritual fathers of the Taliban, while some of the others are known to have supported the Deobandi Taliban in one way or the other. With the exception of one or maybe two members at the negotiating table, the rest have demonstrated absolutely no sympathy for the civilian victims of the Deobandi Taliban’s indiscriminate violence. More importantly, there are no women, minorities, or representatives of the affected groups at the negotiating table. Given the constitution of the teams, it appears that one would only see attempts to legitimise Deobandi Taliban rule in Fata and other remote parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.