Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has finally, against all expectations, offered the Taleban what appears to be the last chance for peace. When he announced the formation of a four-member committee on the floor of the National Assembly — the lower house of Pakistan's bicameral legislature — last Wednesday, it ran against speculation whirling around Islamabad about an impending military operation against the militia.
It follows months of dithering and dodging, where serious questions were being raised about the ability of Sharif government to take on the militants, who have wreaked havoc across Pakistan since the country signed up for the US-led war-on-terror, killing and maiming tens of thousands of civilian and military personnel as well as innocents in bomb explosions and suicide attacks.
In fact, an All Parties Conference, led by the prime minister reached a consensus on September 9 last year — including a mandate from even the secular mainstream parties — to hold a dialogue with the militia.
However, the rickety process was derailed after an American drone killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taleban, which immediately pulled out of the proposed talks, accusing the government of colluding with the US on the sly and, subsequently, launching a series of deadly attacks targeting both the military personnel and civilians.
The military needs political ownership and a national consensus, the like of which helped it to launch a decisive operation against the militants in Swat in 2009. To return to the peace offer made by the PM, there are serious question marks over its very configuration — with sincerity being a moot point.
The PML-N government has remained indecisive more than seven months since returning to power — the fear of a severe backlash in urban centres, particularly in its stronghold of the Punjab province, in the event of using force, holding it back. But there's no mistaking the desperate yearning for a little peace and quiet.
The onus, then, really is on the Taleban, if the push for peace is to succeed. But this is a decidedly treacherous terrain if the past is any guide: to be sure, the murderous militia has scuttled every single one of the six ceasefire/peace pacts it reached at various times with the State of Pakistan only to regroup and launch fresh attacks. The trust deficit is too huge to allow hope to drop anchor. But the most important questions surrounding the proposed peace dialogue remain vague as ever, notwithstanding the authority delegated by the prime minister to his negotiating committee.
The fact is that the Taleban do not recognize the constitution of Pakistan and their obvious demand for the enforcement of Shariah as they interpret it cannot be ceded — no sovereign country can tolerate such demands, much less give in.
The proponents of talks have long argued that the state only need listen to those who accept the country's inviolable sovereignty and writ, and isolate and chase the naysayers. The problem with the idea of playing 'good cop-bad cop' — and it has been done before — is that the only consensus the Taleban of all hues have demonstrated in terms of their method and madness thus far is this: being bad is what makes us good!
Taleban is not a monolithic entity — Hamza Shahbaz, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's nephew, disclosed last month that there were a staggering 56 groups of Taleban operative in Pakistan. Since its loose affiliates have amply demonstrated the existing schism in the past; therefore, the ability and capacity to ensure the implementation of any peace deal remains highly improbable, not just suspect.
In such a scenario, with multiple players loathe to the very idea of talks — and hypothetically speaking, even with the Americans eschewing the urge to liquidate a target suddenly appearing on the radar — the danger of an attempt to sabotage the dialogue and set in a chain reaction that spirals out of control remains absolutely real.
So where do we go from here? It would be naïve to suggest Prime Minister Sharif wouldn't be aware of the pitfalls of a failed effort, which begets the question — what next?
It is entirely likely — logic would suggest that is the case — that he knows the chances of the dialogue succeeding are slim, if any, and therefore, the process is primed to eventually provide a sound justification for using force eventually.
The author is a freelance contributor 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.