Pakistani political parties of different ideological denominations, after attending the All Parties Conference (APC) in Karachi, issued a communique at the conclusion blaming the US war on terror and the negative fall out from drone attacks for the enormous loss of Pakistani lives in the battle against militancy.
Observers have termed this a one-sided understanding of a complicated reality that will only embolden the militants. Militancy in Pakistan has been spawned by multiple factors; in fact, the rise in militancy is akin to a sedimentation process, where inundation of one layer upon another, has created a compressed reality.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban (the TTP, also known as the Pakistani Taliban) and other militants didn’t simply sprout out from nowhere. The process of Islamization, introduced ham-fistedly in the Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq era, impacted on the country’s education system, legislation and the general moorings of society and gave rise to notion of an exclusivist Sunni Muslim identity.
Additionally, the Pakistani state’s obsession with India, ever since its creation in 1947, not only promoted a concept of “other” but also spawned a strategic doctrine where jihadi paramilitary organizations were promoted as proxy agents.
So, when the US launched strikes against Afghanistan in 2001, and also made it clear to the government of Pakistan that there was no room for neutrality in the war against extremism, Pakistan supported the offensive against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. As a result, the militants crossed borders, and found sanctuary in the tribal areas.
Sectarian outfits and militant paramilitary organizations, supported by the security establishment to fight proxy wars, gradually joined hands with the Taliban to fulfill their strategic designs. At the same time, the TTP, a conglomeration of militant outfits that range from militants groups to outright criminal gangs, began challenging the writ of the state in the tribal areas and parts of Pakistan.
Now TTP militants are considered “bad” Taliban for launching attacks on Pakistani security forces and civilians; however, mainstream political parties do not deem some of their allies, such as sectarian organizations, enemies of the state as the parties are beholden to vote-bank politics.
The civilian leadership’s brushing aside of domestic causes of militancy and terrorism in Pakistan has blinded them to realities on the ground. Law enforcement agencies of Pakistan have attenuated in strength while militants have gradually increased their resources, support base and capabilities, which along with guerilla fighting techniques, give them strategic preponderance over the law enforcement agencies.
In this scenario, militants would not take part in talks, if and when these were held, from the position of weakness but would bargain for substantial concessions that might in the long run compromise the principles of democratic governance, political pluralism and religious tolerance that are enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan.
To understand the argument that Taliban militants are not an easier foe to talk to because of their strategic superiority over the law and order apparatus of Pakistan, let’s have a look at some of the comparative advantages of Taliban militants:
One, militants have a safe territorial base in the tribal agencies, where they have set up combat training camps that have not been dismantled by the armed forces of Pakistan because militants are engaged in guerilla warfare and have the mobility, know-how of the terrain and necessary infrastructure to regroup and reappear at different places in the tribal badlands.
Two, their sources of funding are both extensive: they receive funds from Gulf countries, raise collections from criminal activities such as kidnapping for ransom and poppy trade, and most importantly, get donations from tax evading, religiously- leaning sections of the Pakistani society, who might not be directly doling out money to TTP, but their philanthropic donations to Islamic charity organizations and madrassas tend to end up in the the Taliban kitty through an intricate web of fund collection and funneling channels.
Three, the Taliban have military-operations capable weaponry and not ordinary weaponry that is used by our enforcement agencies. In the Dera Ismail Khan jailbreak, they have used Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) that shredded to pieces Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), parked by jail authorities in front of the prison, and remote-controlled Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and miniature IEDs to blast prison locks.
Four, law enforcement personnel, including police force and prison security apparatus, are at best trained to handle traditional crime: murder, robbery, procession control, violation of local and special laws and protection of prisoners in jail. However, they are arrayed against a committed and militarily trained force that has been battle hardened in the Afghanistan and has also the support of collaborators from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Five, they have a support base within Pakistani population, who share their worldview and aspirations. These Taliban sympathizers are a minuscule minority in a country of 180 million but they are sufficient in numbers to provide them safe hideouts, safe halting stations, reconnaissance and intelligence help. Some of the sympathizers are part of law enforcement agencies. Militants, who staged suicide bomb attack inside heavily guarded police lines in Quetta in August this year, possessed complete maps/sketches of the barricaded area, which shows that they received support from inside, possibly extended to them by civilian law enforcement apparatus.
Similarly, militants have plenty of sympathizers in the radicalized but educated middle class. According to media reports, a few al-Qaeda operatives have been arrested from the hostel of two public sector universities along with their technical collaborators in the past week.
Six, while the terrorists focus on a few targets of their choice, the law enforcement agencies have to defend every plausible target, and, as a result, their resources are dissipated. The Taliban understand that law enforcement agencies are over stretched, so they use different tricks to further dilute their strength at the time of major terrorist operations. Background interviews with local law enforcement officials have revealed that a few days before the assault on the Dera Ismail Khan prison, the Taliban and their local sympathizers enervated strength of prison staff by instigating riots in the prison: riots had broken out in the Dera jail two days before the jailbreak, which deflected the attention of the jail administration from impending attack on the prison.
Seven, the Taliban cannot be easily profiled. Unlike many separatist groups, such as Chechens and Tamils, the Taliban have no distinctive physical, linguistic and social features to set them apart from the general population. As a result, they can blend easily in a milieu of a targeted location and their movement cannot be screened by law enforcement agencies. Recently, some of the suspected terrorists have been arrested from their hideouts in the congested colonies in Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Multan, where they were hiding easily because of their ability to assimilate in the local environment easily.
In the current circumstances, rather than frittering away energy on pursuing talks with the Taliban, the government of Pakistan must focus on correcting the strategic imbalance between law enforcement personnel and terrorists by building professional capacity of law enforcement agencies to deal with anti-terrorist activities.
Civilian law enforcement personnel, both police forces and paramilitary organizations, require training in weapons handling and modern methods of investigation. The curricula of police training schools also needs to be modernized by including courses on human rights. Often, arbitrariness and high-handed of police officials and rangers, which results from their limited capacity as well as lack of respect for basic human rights, has invited the ire of civil society and liberal intelligentsia, who are otherwise most vocal opponents of militancy in our radicalized society. However, these measures can be taken by diverting scarce resources to law enforcement sector so as to provide them with weaponry, vehicles and forensic facilities.
Unfortunately, government has kowtowed to the militants by conferring upon them the status of a dialogue partner. Extending to militants the offer of peace talks would further demoralize civilian law enforcement agencies and would also have disastrous consequences for the polity of Pakistan.
The ambiguous policy of the government on militancy – especially when distinction is made between ‘good’ militant and ‘bad’ militants – will confound the ground level troops, manning the police check posts and prison gates. The communication received by the civilian ground troops, at the tactical level, to act against militants would be deemed ineffective because of lingering doubts about the support of the executive chain of command against both militants and incursions of other state institutions, such as military manned security agencies.
As far as repercussions of peace talks on the polity of Pakistan are concerned, these would cast an ominous shadow on the country’s already convoluted state ideology. The Taliban may get an opportunity to decide the future direction of Pakistan – whether it has to become a tolerant, pluralistic democracy or a nation where an exclusivist version of Islam, not ascribed to by majority of this country, would become the prevailing worldview.
Sameera Rashid is a public policy practitioner based in Lahore.