After some dithering, Frankenstein met his monster last week. After nurturing the violent Taliban for over a decade, Pakistan now wants to control it as the insurgent group has started devouring its own creator.
That the monster had a mind of its own for the negotiations became clear when the Taliban interlocutors met the highest political body of the insurgent group in Waziristan on Saturday to brief them about the first round of talks in Islamabad with government representatives.
Last week after the first round of talks on February 6, the government set some parameters – talks would take place under the constitution, the Taliban must cease insurgent activities, and the dialogue would be limited to the trouble-torn regions only.
The Taliban representatives carried the government message to Waziristan, the area where the Islamic rebels hold fort. Newspapers report that after two days of discussions between the Taliban shura, the highest decision making body of the insurgent group, and its informal interlocutors, they came up with 15 demands to take the dialogue process forward.
According to the Daily Times, some of the demands put forward by the shura are the complete cessation of drone attacks, the introduction of full Sharia law, an Islamic system of education in both public and private educational institutions, release of imprisoned members of the Taliban, replacement of the democratic system of governance with the Islamic system and so on.
In the light of these terms and conditions, skepticism about the success of the talks has further widened.
Then the question arises: is this entente between the creator and his monster just an attempt to buy time against the backdrop of a fast changing strategic situation in South Asia?
Even before the talks, some of the rhetoric of the Taliban representatives was disconcerting to the mainstream in Pakistan. Just a day before the talks, Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) representatives had said that the dialogue would not succeed unless the government in Islamabad fully embraced Sharia law and U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan.
How optimistic should one be about the success of talks between a democratically-elected government and a violent fanatic group which does not believe in modernity and democracy?
The Diplomat asked this question to Irfan Siddiqui, one of the four members in the government committee responsible for talks with the Taliban, who expressed optimism. He said that “I am very optimistic about the talks. No such initiative has been taken before by any government in many years. This is for the first time after 9/11 the government is trying to engage the Taliban for talks. It’s a historic moment.”
When asked about Taliban’s demands for the introduction of Sharia law and Islamic education, Siddiqui, who is adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on National Affairs, avoided any direct reply but answered by saying that “the Taliban representatives have not got back to us. Whatever we are hearing is all media speculation. Let them come back to us and we will deliberate on the issues.”
What do these talks mean and, despite so many contradictions and differences, why have the Taliban and the Pakistani government decided to negotiate now?
“The situation is changing. Public opinion is stacked against them. The military heat is on the Taliban and if they don’t engage in dialogue with the government, they face a wipe out at the hands of the army,” explains Tariq Pirzada, a Pakistan-based strategic affairs expert.
Speaking with The Diplomat, Pirzada notes that “the government of Pakistan cannot afford further domestic chaos. The economy is in a bad shape, and the international image of Pakistan is at an all time low. So for Islamabad, a peace process is one way of retrieving the domestic situation and addressing the international concerns.”
However, Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense expert and a prominent face of the Pakistani intelligentsia, is more skeptical about the peace process and its consequences for Pakistan.
In an interview with The Diplomat, she notes that “lots of people are skeptical about the talks. Suppose the talks are successful: it has the potential to change the nature of the state. Imagine the kind of havoc it will create if Sharia law is introduced and applied. They have not still stopped the violence.”
She further adds that “at the strategic level, it is extremely problematic. What will the government say to those whose families have been victims of terrorist attacks? At one level there is no doubt some sympathies for the Taliban exist among certain sections in society and they are willing to accept Sharia law without understanding its implications. Common men just want peace. There is, however, no one to explain to them what Sharia means. So opinion is divided and there is no certainty so far.”
For senior journalist Hamid Mir, a security analyst and an expert on terrorism, the dialogue between the insurgent group and the government is an important development. Mir told The Diplomat that “this is the first time the central government and the political establishment in Islamabad are engaging the Taliban for talks.”
Mir, who is on the Taliban’s hit list, elaborates that the agreements in 2004, 2005, and 2008 were either with the army or local governments. This is the first time the national political establishment in Islamabad has been involved in talks with the Taliban.
He says “there are two opinions within the Taliban about the talks. If one group strikes a deal with the government, then the insurgent group would stand divided and that would be advantageous to the government. Prime Minister Sharif also wants to give peace a chance and if the Taliban backs out then Islamabad has genuine reason to launch a military onslaught against the group.”
The general impression among opinion makers and the media is that the talks with Taliban are doomed to fail. The BBC, in an analytical piece, cites a number of reasons why the dialogue is futile.
One columnist in Pakistan’s DAWN calls the talks a farce gone too far. The author, Zahid Hussain, warns that “surrendering to terrorists never brings peace. Conceding to the TTP’s demands would lead to the unraveling of this state. And it will not just be the tribal areas when the entire country is under threat.”
There are some who question the very idea of engagement with the brutal group.
The Nation terms the peace process a “waste of time.” In an editorial, it argues that “the government is advised, even though it almost never listens, to stop wasting its time on this so-called ‘peace process,’ and start speaking in the only language militants understand.”
“The Taliban want Pakistan to go back to the 8th century. How can any government that wants to succeed in the 21st century negotiate with people who have no understanding of contemporary times and want everyone to surrender to their vision of barbarism in the form of an Islamic state?” says Husain Haqqani in an interview with The Diplomat. Haqqani is a veteran foreign policy expert and former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States. Haqqani, in his latest book, exposes how the Pakistani establishment has been instrumental in creating and harboring extremist Islamic forces as a matter of state policy.
Can the army and the ISI, which have been the main supporters of the Taliban, control their oversized and outgrown baby?