To talk or not to talk with the Taleban — that is the question. Even the cliché that Pakistanis are yearning for peace through an end to the murderous Taleban violence is an understatement.
So, is this possible? Or even desirable? Peace through talks is a seemingly benevolent and apparently easy way of bringing a modicum of normalcy to Pakistan as opposed to the concept of taking the war to the heart of Taleban in an attempt to irreversibly undo them.
But if this were really doable, then why couldn't a powerful government headed directly by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and a secular coalition government (Asif Zardari's PPP, Asfandyar Wali's ANP and Altaf Hussain's MQM) able to do it in the decade preceding the May 2013 elections? They all tried hard enough.
In the 10 years that Taleban have bloodcurdlingly terrorized the country, at times overtly aided by the money and skills of Al Qaeda, killing more than 40,000 civilians and soldiers, Pakistan has tried both talks and force to neutralize them. The net result is that despite the at-times severe setbacks to its operational capability, the Taleban still have a strong national footprint, aided by many militant groups tolerated as policy by the state, in terms of their ability to mount major attacks to devastating effect anywhere they want.
In the last five years alone, they've killed the likes of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and ANP's Bashir Bilour as well as 19 legislators, twice nearly killed Musharraf and managed to get into the military headquarters and naval and air bases to strike fatal blows.
So, what makes many think, in particular PML-N and PTI, which have already been 'greeted' by the Taleban with post-election strikes, that the Taleban will cease their violence and make themselves redundant through talks?
Do Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan really think Taleban are their friends just because they made it clear to all and sundry before elections that they wanted PML-N and PTI in power and PPP, ANP and MQM consigned to oblivion?
When did the Taleban undo their declared mission statement of seizing the state to enforce a caliphate by abolishing democracy, the system through which Sharif and Imran find themselves in power with the mandate to bring peace?
There are so many ifs and buts, and logistical nightmares, to talks — even if they happen — that it makes the head spin. Who will lead the talks — the PML-N government at the Centre or the PTI government in the province? Their two parties are sworn enemies. Can they talk to the Taleban together through a consensus interlocutor? Then, who is the representative at the other end that can offer 'sovereign' Taleban guarantees? And guarantees to whom — Sharif (the Centre) or Imran (the province)?
And talk to groups that are formally outlawed by law without changing the constitution, or de-proscribing them? Talks always mean compromise. Give and take. What can Imran promise on behalf of the province? Or Sharif on behalf of the federation? Without the consent of the elephant in the room — the military, which by force and default represents the state (not the government) — which of the two leaders with the mandate of ending terrorism and bringing peace promise concessions to the Taleban?
The bottom line is that the Pakistani state lost thousands of kilometers of territory in various swathes over the last decade to non-state actors. This is unprecedented in modern history.
This brings us to the premise of the would-be compromise that the state/government (assuming Sharif, Imran and General Kayani are, somehow by miracle, on the same page) is willing to offer the Taleban. What is it that the Taleban want? Clearly, to hold on to territory they are holding. To get a formal declaration by the state to enforce Sharia in the tribal areas — an environment conducive to the Taleban's influence on the local populations that can help them stay entrenched.
All of this aids the Taleban in keeping what they have, plus buying time to consolidate and replenish their killing machine. A de-facto state for non-state actors in a nuclear state!
And what can the state/government want from the Taleban? A halt to attacks on soldiers and civilians? A laying down of arms? Acceptance of the Constitution of Pakistan? Transformation of the Taleban into a political movement that can make them a bona fide stakeholder in the state and government structures?
This would be extraordinarily naïve. Their leaders have often talked of representing Khorasan — the greater region comprising parts of not just Afghanistan and Iran but also Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
They have grander plans than merely being restricted to Pakistan.The Taleban will not surrender or give up their dreams through talks alone. Talks with them will merely delay the eventual use of force against them.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.