The Taliban are in a war and those fighting wars are realists, not armchair philosophers arguing about theory and metaphysical subtleties. Of course they will say they are for the enforcement of Allah’s commandments but that is like the Pakistani side saying that they are for talks strictly within the ambit of the constitution.
Both are rhetorical positions from which the two sides will not waver. But the focus of both sides, the Taliban more than the government, will be on concrete issues. So far it is the government making the principal concession of recognising the Taliban (almost) as an equal party. The Deobandi Taliban have conceded nothing. This talks’ process which has given them so much exposure and a measure of legitimacy, they are not such idiots to let it flounder on the finer points of the Shariah and the constitution.
As they see the government on a slippery slope – the slope of concessions always slippery – the Taliban endeavour, as already evident from their initial demands, will be to wrest more concessions from the government side.
First and foremost, the release of Deobandi Taliban prisoners which list will surely include the likes of Dr Usman Deobandi who was the mastermind of the attack on General Headquarters. If they can secure only this, the release of their prisoners, this for them will be a major coup resulting in deafening celebratory gunfire and the slaughtering of lambs not only in their North Waziristan sanctuaries but in all their havens.
The Taliban have already stayed the execution of Dr Usman Deobandi. They issued threats and the government caved in, another telling indication of the slippery slope on which the Pakistani side is. GHQ will of course balk at the release of Taliban prisoners, especially Dr Usman. But it is on this point, not anything to do with the Shariah or the constitution, that the talks will break or move forward. If there is no agreement on prisoner release we can safely assume that the talks will die a sudden death.
Nawaz Sharif wants the talks to get somewhere. There should be no doubts on this score. Others may be playing games and while he is perfectly capable of playing games when it suits him, on this issue he is serious, as is that other talks’ proponent, Nisar Ali Khan. But whether they are able to take GHQ with them on this issue will show the limits or the extent of the political government’s authority. And this test will come very soon because, as already stated, without the great coup of securing the release of their imprisoned comrades the Taliban are not likely to move forward or discuss anything else.
The second major demand from the Taliban has to be the withdrawal of the army, the regular army, from Fata. Without this talks for them make no sense. They can even become historians and say that this is what the Quaid-e-Azam had pledged to the tribes, that there would be no regular troops stationed in Fata. The Deobandi Taliban are not fools to say outright that they want de jure control of Fata. But getting the army to withdraw from there amounts virtually to that, handing over Fata to the Taliban, with the fig-leaf of the Frontier Corps as a sop to Pakistani notions of sovereignty. Again the big question: will GHQ agree?
On these two major points, prisoner release and army withdrawal, the real talks thus will be not between the two committees of stooges – sorry, the commanding plenipotentiaries – representing respectively the government and the Taliban, but between Nawaz Sharif and GHQ. The committees are no better than postmen or pigeon-carriers, conveying messages from one side to the other, with no authority whatsoever to take any independent decisions. Any decision on these key points will emerge from the dialogue between the federal government and the army command. The rest will be shadow-boxing.
Can the prime minister and his aides agree on an army withdrawal from Fata? They should have no problem because for the Punjabi mindset Fata already is a very distant proposition, if not a lost cause. The Punjabi industrial class, the cement and other mafias, have their eyes on easing border restrictions with India and increasing trade on that front. That’s where they see not only the profits but, to be fair to them, better economic prospects for the country. For these enterprising souls Fata and the Taliban are distractions.
If the Taliban and other extremist groups confine themselves to the shadowy emirate of the seven tribal agencies and they can be stopped, by any means possible including surreptitious payments, from bringing the wages of terrorism into Lahore and Punjab, the Punjabi seths and Mians will be more than happy.
The two things that make for realism are power and money. If the Taliban are realists so are the Punjabi seths. The Taliban have acquired power through the barrel of their guns, and their skill at the improvised explosive device, the great discovery of the Iraq war and now the most effective tactic of Islamist insurgency from here to Syria. The Deobandi Taliban want to preserve their gains and give their conquests the aura of legitimacy and respect. (Which mug says they even contemplate laying down their arms?) And the seths want more for themselves. They also have their eyes on such items of realism as the loot sale of state industries high on this government’s agenda.
They won’t say it or put it in these words but this is the commonality of interests between the men on the mountains with their guns and their flowing, well-groomed locks – in the world of the Taliban there is a ban only on female makeup, none on male makeup – and the hard-eyed high bourgeoisie of Punjab. And stripped of rhetoric and fine theory about the constitution and the Shariah, what these talks are about is to find the path of co-existence between the conquering mountain men and the seths of the plains – the seths now sitting atop not only the commanding heights of the economy but the commanding heights of power.
If there was no GHQ veto or GHQ reservations there would be an agreement between the two sides within a matter of days. But, as stated before, the real talks will be between the government and the generals. There can be no question of being on the same page. It’s just not possible, the two sides looking at the world through different sets of binoculars. The only question is who can better persuade, or better prevail over, the other side – the seths or the generals?
The third important point has to be about compensation. In Pakhtun or Afghan culture there is no such thing as something for nothing. The deal sweetener, the grease on the joints, will be the money that the Taliban have already demanded as losses suffered during drone attacks and military operations. GHQ is not strictly relevant as far as this point is concerned because it is Ishaq Dar who holds the purse strings and who, if it comes to that, will have to make available this ransom money, which in real terms is what this ‘compensation’ will amount to.
These three are the core points – the rest is all flimflam and oratory. To sum up, regarding points one and two, on which the talks will succeed or break, the cards are held by GHQ. The real talks thus will not be between the postmen from both sides but between the politicos-cum-seths in Islamabad and the generals in Rawalpindi.
Let’s not forget another point. This is not Egypt – perhaps thank God for that – and there is no Al-Sisi. And there is no vibrant civil society or middle class which set in motion the move against President Morsi…which means we can reasonably discount the eruption of any feverish excitement along Egyptian lines.
Tailpiece: As for the reverend Maulana Abdul Aziz Deobandi and his fulminations regarding the Shariah, no one in his right mind, not even the Taliban, can be expected to take him seriously. The Maulana, sitting in Islamabad, enjoys the luxury of pontification. The Taliban are into more real things.