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Déjà vu in Pakistan

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-06-2014 Gayatri Chandrasekaran

The French philosopher Voltaire said, “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable”. Madness can either evince sympathy, when it is caused by delusions, or derision when it is a move to encourage trouble whole-heartedly. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s dealings with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, also known as the Pakistan Taliban, before and after he came to power are symptomatic of the latter variety of madness.

On Sunday night, the terrorist group that wants to fundamentally alter the way Pakistan is run, attacked Karachi Airport, killing at least 27 persons. It is the latest and most worrying example of the reality that Pakistan’s government either does not want to face up to or does not care enough to acknowledge when dealing with the TTP.

“Peace talks” with the militant organization was one of the cornerstones of Sharif’s election campaign. In May last year, when he was the Prime Minister-elect, this is what Sharif had to say about talks with TTP: “Every option should be used…guns and bullets alone are not the solution to any problem”.

It was a noble thought. If only the Pakistan Taliban felt the same way! The TTP has always “welcomed” talks with the government, just that its members were simultaneously bombing towns and cities in the country, killing innocent Pakistanis. Who said “peace talks” and killing people are mutually exclusive? Definitely not a member of the TTP.

This paper has argued in the past that the weakness of the strategy of holding talks with TTP lies in the fact that Sharif’s government never laid out specific goals of what it wants to achieve through the dialogue process. Indeed, what can the government offer to a group trying to oust the government itself? And for the Taliban, the ouster of the Sharif government is not the end goal: It has its own, medieval and theocratic, vision of how to run Pakistan. It is a group that does not believe in political competition that is the staple of modern democracies.

The TTP has been consistent in its violent attacks and seeking “revenge”. The Karachi attack was revenge for the killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who died in November 2013 by a US drone strike. The TTP claimed that “the attack was planned much earlier but had been postponed due to the peace talks”.

Starting all over again

It is worth asking why a civilian government is concentrating on looking for peace where none is possible instead of taking decisive action against the group.

Sharif’s power base lies in Punjab. His brother Shahbaz Sharif is the chief minister of the province. A deal between the Sharif brothers and the TTP was instrumental in ensuring the latter’s support for the elder Sharif’s quest for power. Southern Punjab has for long been Pakistan’s hotbed of Islamic radicalism outside its ungovernable Western provinces. The TTP, along with other like-minded groups, can make or break any political party’s fortunes.

Even when the deal was being struck, it was considered a Faustian bargain. The TTP, under immense military pressure in Waziristan and Swat, needed some breathing space. If Sharif came to power, the TTP could get valuable time to regroup and plan its next moves. And that is what the prime minister provided.

Pakistan sees a familiar political boom-and-bust sequence every decade. First, a discredited military regime gives up. Elections are held and a civilian government comes to power. Then, the prime minister—a person usually insecure and for good reasons—begins consolidating his personal power. All this happens without any attention to long-term governance issues. Pakistan is run in a day-to-day manner only.

Soon afterwards, the head of the government starts making mistakes. The army leadership structure is tinkered with. Generals are superseded, primacy is sought in foreign policymaking with India and Afghanistan and a host of other changes made. Sooner or later, these steps—which are essentially to preserve the prime minister’s position and not the consolidation of democracy—backfire.

Sharif has begun that sequence again.

The repeated attacks by the Taliban are likely to cost him politically. On the one hand, he is likely to lose the support of his voters who now bear the brunt of increasingly audacious terrorist attacks. On the other hand, ideologically both the army and the Taliban will gain over him. Pakistanis of different persuasion will either feel that the army is better at tackling extremists or the Taliban indeed offer a better solution to Pakistan’s problems.

These changes do not happen overnight. But Sharif’s appeasement of the Taliban and his less-than-cordial relations with his Army chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, indicate which way he is headed. He has, it seems, not learnt from his past mistakes.

If the government does not make its commitment to tackle the TTP evident in the coming days, it will be as guilty as the group that kills innocent people seeking revenge for killing other innocents. Indeed, as D.H. Lawrence said “people always make war when they say they love peace”. And this is equally true of the government and the TTP.

Global Roaming runs every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.

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