From the tentative hopefulness of the election year and all the promises made by elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) in 2013, it appears that 2014 is to be a year of uncertainty for Pakistan. Still in his first year in office, Sharif and the PML-N have unwittingly presided over a nation that is experiencing an upsurge in militant attacks. As far as auspicious starts go, January has been a brutal month: on the sixth,a school student was killed; on the nineteenth, twenty Pakistani soldiers were killed near Bannu; on the twentieth, thirteen people were killed in Rawalpindi. To emphasize the cruel point: the death of twenty-four Shia pilgrims near Quetta and three polio workers in Karachi both on the twenty-first. Various other incidents help to round out the salient point: 2014 conjures a degree of dubiousness over the prospects for Pakistan, reiterating the same wretched routine of bloodshed for ordinary Pakistanis.
Thankfully, the terror has not numbed the consciousness of Pakistanis “into an inert, unresisting acceptance,” as art historian F.S. Aijazuddin puts it. If anything, there has been a renewed discourse in Pakistan’s media outlets as to how best to respond as a nation. Against the PML-N’s policy of negotiating with the Pakistan Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), many now are advocating a more aggressive approach. As well-known Lahore-based journalist Ahmed Rashid writes for the BBC, “the violence is unsparing, unprecedented and reaching frightening proportions.” Rashid argues for a zero tolerance policy for all terrorist groups, arguing that the PML-N’s policy towards ending the insurgency is “dithering.” According to Rashid, a military offensive against militants appears to be the only option in the face of such appalling violence. Nor is he alone. In one of the leading English language newspapers, the Dawn, journalist Abbas Nasir carries the theme further, suggesting how there needs to be a “coordinated fight against terror.” To Nasir, this has become all the more apparent given that “compromise with terrorists isn’t possible because agreeing to their demands would mean taking the country back hundreds of years.”
There is an acute sense amongst many commentators that the politics of appeasement, which Sharif seems determined to pursue, is going nowhere. One might say that Sharif is overcommitted to negotiation to the point of failing to provide for other possibilities. Similar to the precedent of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany – an analogy the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been quick to make – negotiating with the TTP seems like a fruitless enterprise to many.
As it stands, the TTP with its nationwide campaign of terror is the proactive party, in the position of strength in proceedings, while the Pakistani government seems to be the passive participant, reacting (and not overly effectively) to the various incidents of terror. For talks to be meaningful for the government, this status quo needs to change. Sharif seems to be aware of this. In the past few weeks, while Sharif has established a team of four experts to try and negotiate with the militants, a ground offensive into the TTP stronghold of North Waziristan has been gearing up. Sharif explained the essence of his policy recently, stating in typical style “if we have to fight them to force negotiations, we will. If we have to launch a military operation or bomb them for negotiations, we will. If we have to drone them into negotiations, we will.”
To the government’s large number of vocal critics, the Waziristan offensive that Sharif has in mind is far too limited in scope. It sacrifices the opportunity that a larger strike would present and fails to accentuate the division within the TTP.
However, against the vivid foreground of recent events lays a somewhat hazier background. A handful of commentators have again come out linking the problem of terrorism to Pakistan’s wider context. They touch on issues that are often forgotten in light of immediate political expediency. After all, militarism is pathologically linked to a broad array of socio-political considerations. Explicitly, the undercurrent of intolerance towards minorities, the lack of social cohesion between rich and poor, and the absence of a coherent agenda of social and economic reform are integrated components in Pakistan’s security situation. Journalist Aasim Zafar Khan stresses this in The International News, the largest English language newspaper in Pakistan. Khan notes that if there were to be a military operation it would be incumbent upon the government to “take advantage of the space created” by the offensive “and immediately move in, carrots in hand, to ensure that in the vacuum created by the operation more extremism is not allowed to breed.”
Khan touches on a fundamental and overlooked point. If the government is set upon a military offensive in Waziristan (or even negotiating with the TTP), then there still needs to be a broader vision of how to permanently neutralize the threats of violent sectarianism, extremism, and militancy that perpetuate instability in civil society.
“What does this mean, then?” Khan asks rhetorically. “Well, the impossible really. What Pakistan requires is an education overhaul and a religious one too. Both are impossible, under the current circumstances. So, what good will an operation do?”
There is a dim echo in Khan’s words and many of the editorials of Pakistan’s newspapers. Former military officer Samson Simon Sharaf for instance elaborates upon Khan’s point, writing in the Lahore based newspaper The Nation “no national policy can be made by a select team of individuals who lack the larger experience and requisite intellectualism to perceive the broader picture in the accurate perspective.”
Sharaf draws dichotomies between the manner in which the United States drafts its national security policies compared to Pakistan. According to Sharaf, the U.S., despite its political fragmentation, is still able to collate its military arms and federal agencies in an effort to consolidate its economic interests.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has yet to define its core interests. Pakistan’s political fragmentation, it seems, is insurmountable: an archipelago of conflicting interests gyrating away from one another, unable to come together on what is a fundamental danger to all. As it stands, intense political rivalries and the presence of provincial fiefdoms for particular political parties in Pakistan allows for very little cross-partisan strategy. To an extent, political inertness has effectively authorized the context for the bloodshed Pakistan now endures regularly. The simple act of gesturing like a hawk or a dove, as is the case with many Pakistani politicians, without actually articulating a core set of interests invariably renders any short-term strategies ineffective over the long-term.
In other words, while a military strike is needed, the Pakistani government should not end at concluding a quick peace. After all, once (and indeed if) Sharif has achieved peace with the leadership of the TTP, what then? Will an ostensive agreement with the leaders of the TTP really result in an improved security situation? Or is Sharif and the PML-N going down the same path as previous Pakistani governments by aiming to achieve short-term political gains without a long-term vision in which most Pakistani’s can share?
Christopher Ernest Barber is a doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland, specializing in the history of international arbitration and the development of globalization, commerce, and trade.