Government/Taliban talks begin - But where will they go?

The Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, nominated several non-political actors to his negotiating team for talks with Taliban, including Irfan Siddique, Rustam Shah Mohmand, Rahimullah Yousafzai and Major Amir Khan (formerly of the state security service -ISI). Regardless of their nomination, members of the negotiating team claim not to have high expectations about the outcome. Mr Yousufzai and Mr Mohmand have both expressed reservations. Faced with the prospect of multiple insurgent groups attacking the state’s sovereignty, the negotiators seem left in a state of uncertainty and bewilderment. They have no knowledge of the government’s strategy, of what to communicate to the press, or indeed what the end result of negotiations will be. The committee seems more like mediators shuttling between the two sides rather than negotiators.

On the other side, in an apparent attempt to delude the government into believing the peace talks might work, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) nominated Imran Khan from the PTI, Maulana Samiul Haq (JUI-S), Mufti Kifayatullah (JUI-F), Maulana Aziz (of Lal Masjid fame) and Professor Muhammad Ibrahim (JI). The disparate construction of the committee would have made it hard to solve the national security problems at the negotiating table. Maulana Fazlur Rehman expressed his dismay at the nominations and also at the lack of implementing a jirga (council) system for the talks (Though that would negate the peace process itself). The choice of negotiators reflects that the TTP (Taliban) is aware of rifts between the parties and is mindful of their inability to find a consensus. Moreover, none of them are actively a part of the TTP, so their ability to hold the group to what it agrees is very limited. It is hardly surprising that the nominated negotiators on both sides appear reluctant to participate.

The peace committees formed by the government and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have made a curious start to the negotiations. First, it was the government’s four-member committee that refused to meet the TTP’s peace team on Tuesday. They asked the TTP negotiators to clarify their position and mandate. A day later, the government’s committee made several futile attempts to contact the TTP-nominated committee. The coordinator of TTP committee, Maulana Samiul Haq, (also known as the “father” of the Taliban), instead of focusing on peace talks, preferred delivering a fiery speech on February 5 on the platform of Pakistan Defence Council in connection with Kashmir Day.

He criticised the government and its committee in his speech. He said that neither the prime minister nor his committee was fully authorised to hold peace talks. “The Taliban are fighting a war of supremacy of the constitution and independence of the country because foreign powers are controlling it. The Taliban are demanding the enforcement of sharia in the country,” he said. He warned the government that an operation against the Taliban would set the whole country alight. Maulana Abdul Aziz, another member of the Taliban committee, also said on the same day that without an agreement on the implementation of sharia, the Taliban would not take talks to a successful conclusion. “Their real agenda is the implementation of sharia. All secular courts based on the common law system should be abolished,” he said, adding, “The only way forward is to accept Taliban’s demand”.

It seems the present government has provided the TTP with an opportunity to consolidate and increase its support base — both operational and ideologically in the country. TTP negotiators have been presenting the TTP as an organisation that has been fighting for Islam. The government or its committee has failed, so far, to counter the TTP narrative.

On the one hand, the TTP’s demands are clear: it wants implementation of its version of sharia law in the country; it would like the constitution to be amended; it wants women to dress according to its version of sharia law; it is also demanding release of its prisoners and the ending of drone attacks. It is interesting that, at one level, the TTP and its negotiating committee have been demanding implementation of sharia law as the first step to start talks. On the other hand, the government’s negotiating committee is only authorised to negotiate within constitutional parameters.

The TTP negotiators wanted to know whether the government negotiators had full powers and could ensure that “the demands of the Talban are met.” They also sought meetings with the prime minister, the COAS and the Director General of the security services, the ISI.

The government team insisted that the discussions should be held within the parameters of the constitution; “activities” which could hamper the talks should end; the respective mandates of the TTP’s negotiations committee and its nine-member monitoring mechanism needed clarification; the dialogue process should be short and “the scope of the talks will be limited to insurgency affected areas.”

The last of these points is significant as it implies that the government could eventually allow the TTP to impose its vicious reactionary ideology in some of the tribal areas, notably North Waziristan. The previous government in Swat Valley allowed this in 2009. On that occasion, Mullah Fazlullah of the TTP quickly overran the adjacent Buner district and boasted: “The day is not far when Islamabad will be in our hands.”

The question of Islamic laws (Sharia)

Will negotiations contribute to violence or help reduce them? If they reduce violence, will they contribute to an already-ongoing negative transformation of Pakistani society into one that is dominated by arbitrary violence, coercive politics, and religious authoritarianism, intolerance of dissent and persecution of unrepresented people?

The talks have opened up the question of Sharia law in a hitherto unprecedented way. Reading through the pro- and anti-talks debate unfolding in the national media at present, it is clear that of the concerns that preoccupy those opposed to the negotiations, and the re-opened question of Sharia evokes some of the most worried concerns.

This is not hard to understand. It is because the talks are an opportunity to restate the case for Pakistan to adopt an ‘Islamicised’ law for its state and officially sanction an Islamic code in everyday life. This, it is argued, is the logical culmination of the ‘identitarian’ Muslim state that was founded in 1947. A development, they claim, which has been thwarted by the hypocrisy of certain influential sections of society. These ‘conspiring’ sections of society they claim have never exactly had the courage to say that they are against Sharia or that Sharia ought not to be enforced. Instead, they have blocked it on various grounds: that it is unenforceable because of sectarian divisions; that it contradicts international norms of law and human rights and would isolate Pakistan. They argue that the already present Islamic provisions in the constitution are sufficient guarantee of the Islamic character of the state and should be accepted as a line of control that for all practical purposes is permanent.

It’s clear to anyone that these demands subtract everything that is not only problematic and divisive but also complex in religion, to arrive at a loosely defined religious social practice that really affirms a refusal to change or to think.

Against this, advocates of Sharia advance a mixed arsenal of arguments, ranging from the visionary to the abjectly reactionary. Sharia law comes to assume, in their discourse, something like an unfulfilled promise of equality and justice. They see it as a grand project of social engineering whose scope is limitless, a romantic and metaphysical Utopia, which is able to unite and inspire society and give direction to political action.

The reactionary arguments for Sharia are mainly of two types. They ask what the least common denominators of Sharia are: on what do ‘we’ agree as undeniably Islamic? And, they ask, who wants to see us deprived of our Islamic identity? The answer to these questions taps into the reservoir of social conservatism (present in varying degrees everywhere) that pools fears of losing control and identity, of seeing rapid and confusing change, of loosening traditional bonds of hierarchy and privilege. In Pakistan’s case, it translates into: no drinking, no sexual freedom, no co-education, full face veil, no interest, no repeal of any laws labeled Islamic, and nothing that overlaps with the ways of life seemingly espoused by others and the outsider — West, Hindu, Ahmadi, and Shia. The list can be expanded and probably will be. It’s clear to anyone, even perhaps to the pro-Sharia themselves, that these demands exclude everything that is not only problematic and divisive but promising and complex in religion. Through this you to arrive at a loosely defined religious social practice that really affirms a refusal to change or to think. It affirms a reactionary social conservatism, and with reason. Yet, being able to see this doesn’t necessarily amount to a discourse that can challenge it. Whatever else the negotiation process may or may not accomplish, it will fling wide open the door on this question. As this happens, arguments on the religious right are bound to sound more persuasive because they are an abstraction and intensification of what many people think without thinking anyway. This, perhaps, is part of what commentators mean by ‘creeping Talibanisation’.

The religious right in Pakistan uses the issue of Sharia and Islamic laws just to divert the attention of the working class and poor masses from the burning issues of daily life faced by them. The main reason why the reactionary forces both inside and outside the state apparatus raise the issue of an Islamic system and Sharia law in the country, is because they have no answers to the problems and issues faced by society and the working class. The burning class issues of poverty, hunger, the economic questions and social inequality. They have no programme how to solve these issues. They have no clue how to distribute or redistribute the wealth and resources among the masses. So they use the religion as smoke screen.

The violence continues

Last Sunday’s grenade attack at a Peshawar cinema hall, which resulted in five deaths and 13 injuries, was followed on Tuesday by the suicide bombing of a hotel near the city’s historic Qissa Khwani Bazaar leaving nine dead and 42 severely wounded. The people killed or injured were mostly Shias from Parachinar. Though the TTP distanced itself from both incidents, responsibility for the attack on the cinema was promptly claimed by its Jundullah faction. On Wednesday, Mufti Hassan Swati, who claims to be the TTPs’ chief in the Peshawar district, told reporters that his group had suicide-bombed the hotel “to fulfil the wish of our central deputy emir Shaikh Khalid Haqqani, to avenge the deaths of innocent students in Rawalpindi in November.” He added that it was for the same reason that the local head of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz Fiqah-e-Jafria, Ali Asghar, and a Shia bank manager had also been killed a few days earlier.

The attacks on both the security forces and ordinary people are still taking place on daily basis. In last two weeks, more than 20 attacks have occurred in the different parts of the country. The main target of these attacks was the security forces and Shias. Also anti-Taliban groups were targeted. The Taliban have also attacked and killed four journalists of a private news channel in Karachi and warned other journalist and media outlets.

Split in the Taliban Movement

This is the context in which the “disassociation” of the TTP spokesman from recent terrorist attacks has to be evaluated. What emerges is that there is no centralised command and control mechanism within the outfit. The TTP operates through its various franchises which act independently. It is not clear which of the estimated 40 or so TTP factions the governments’ four-member negotiating committee will be talking to.

There are more than 22 small factions or off shoots of the main Taliban groups which are against the negotiations. They wanted to continue their attacks on the security forces and ordinary citizens. There are also sectarian outfits likes of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), an Al-Qaeda affiliate which is involved in the attacks on Shias.

The problem is further compounded because the newly-appointed TTP chief, Mullah Fazlullah, who is a Yousafzai from Swat. However, the group is exclusively dominated by the Mehsuds of the tribal areas. It is uncertain to what extent Fazlullah is acceptable to the major commanders. This applies particularly to those in charge of the seven tribal agencies who are all fiercely independent men.

An English weekly newspaper recently identified these commanders as Shehryar Mehsud of North Waziristan; Khan Said, the head the South Waziristan chapter; Hafiz Dolat, the TTP chief in Kurram; Abdul Wali, in Mohmand; Abu Bakr, the leader of the Bajaur chapter; Hafiz Saeed Khan, the emir in Orakzai and the notorious Mangal Bagh, leader of the Lashkar-e-Islam in the Khyber Agency.

In addition, there are several other TTP commanders outside the tribal regions who are as opinionated and resent excessive interference by the TTP’s inner circle. Prominent among these is Muhammad Arif who is responsible for Darra Adamkhel, Hangu and Kohat and Shah Jehan of Swabi. The list goes on and on. What brings the TTP factions together is the single-minded determination to impose their interpretation of Islam on the country.

It is anyone’s guess whether the Prime Minister realises what he is up against. Three of the four members of his panel of peace negotiators are TTP sympathisers. This is apparent from the alarming background of Major Amir. According to a columnist, some years back his father, Maulana Tahir, founded a “madressah” [religious school] at Panjpir where the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi Chief, Sufi Muhammad, Mullah Fazlullah, Mangal Bagh, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and other diehard militants were indoctrinated.

Eroding democratic rights and freedom

The only substantive thing that may come out of the talks is a change in the overall nature of the state. If the talks “succeed”, we may actually see a metamorphosis of the state from a hybrid-theocracy, which it is at the moment, to a complete theocracy. The Taliban and their allies, including both “good” and “bad” militants, want implementation of Sharia Law in Pakistan. Even if there is an agreement on a limited implementation in parts of the country, it will eventually trickle down into the rest.

Everything will depend on how far the military and civilian leadership wants to go in accommodating the Taliban demands. Although a more important question would be how comfortable is the civil and military leadership in changing the nature of the state. The Taliban may not want to compromise on anything less than implementing Sharia Law — along with release of all prisoners. This will mean a strengthening of the militant force that aims to take over the state. So, if they decide to surrender, there is no way anyone will challenge the Taliban. If they do not, then some form of conflict is inevitable.

Similarly, how can the state think of a major military operation when there are all kinds of militants based in the heartlands, the Punjab and the Sindh. It is not just Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) but also TTP and Lashkar e Khorasan. They are allegedly part of al-Qaeda and have men that were once part of JeM. These organisations are thriving in the Punjab and the Sindh. They even have links with the politicians and military establishment.

It is not clear if the military has a plan to abandon the “good militants/Taliban”. The “good” Taliban are connected to the “bad” Taliban by ties of blood, friendship and alignments. One cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. If the Establishment wants to use some of them after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, one can’t really be serious about launching a military operation against them. Or can we?

All the talk of Sharia Law entirely excludes even any mention of the “Islamic welfare state” where every citizen was assured a living wage under the law. There is no mention of proper income distribution and an adequate safety net for all citizens. However, it seems that besides banning everything that might be a bit of fun, the only other thing that concerns them is women. They do not want women in the movies or on television. They do not want women in the workplace, they do not want women to be seen in public except in shrouds, they do not want women to get an education and they definitely do not want coeducation. They want to exclude women from daily public life. They want complete social segregation of women in society. For them, the only role women can have is to please men, give birth to children and do the household chores. For them, women should be confined within the four walls of the house. Women going to the park, restaurant and even to market is “un-Islamic” and the cause of all ills in society. So women should be banned from all joy and entertainment that normal human beings need.

The present government is going on the road to erode the basic democratic and human rights guaranteed in the constitution. The PML-N government has recently introduced a new piece of legislation in which it gives the right to the security forces to shoot anybody that seems “suspicious”. This legislation also gives sweeping powers to the security forces and intelligence agencies, including legal right to arrest anybody for an unlimited period of time. This is, in fact, the legalisation of forced disappearances. This law is going to be used against any dissent against the government. This law will turn a virtual police state into a virtual military state. The police and intelligence agencies are notorious for the violations of human rights and after getting more powers these violations will increase.

If these negotiations between Taliban and the government succeeded then the working masses will suffer more and enjoy less rights. It is necessary to build a struggle of the working masses to defend democratic and human rights and create a real socialist alternative to the barbarism of capitalism and feudalism.

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