Whither Peace Committees?
While the government talks peace with the Taliban, innocent people continue to die.
If the government seeks to barter peace through accommodation and dialogue,
it must do so on its own.
When the government decided to take forward the dialogue process with the Taliban, it restructured the composition of its peace committees and also considered, quite loudly, the need for including a senior member from the military as a part of the dialogue committee. Normally, this wouldn’t have been the government position given that this government in particular has been persistently endeavoring and claiming more effective civilian control over the military.
Yet, the thought found greater resonance with every passing moment, reaching a crescendo which almost suggested that the matter was a done deal. It was not.
If there is one thing that all who hold power must know, it is that even power has limits. The COAS met his Corps Commanders and his Principal Staff Officers and their combined wisdom was that the army must stay out of the business of dialogue, which anyway was a political effort. The army would, however, be on the standby to assist with any matter that the committee might need help with. The government agreed. However, it can be surmised that there would be a lavish intelligence support to the committee as it thrashed out the more substantive issues with the Taliban Committee.
Consider this. The members of the original committee – persons from the media, a former military major and a scion of a religious family – were all considered anodyne; good people without much effect and influence. The Taliban must have thought that with this kind of an opposing interlocution there wasn’t much hope to talk substance. The former committee, on the other hand, felt that given the likely nature of the talks, reflected in the three issues that were discussed, only the army could give a final verdict. Inclusion of the army
in the committee at that time would have made a significant difference. It is equally likely that given the notso-laudatory press that the committee was receiving, its members found the less-than-muted wish of the Taliban to have a more influential government committee an opportune moment to bow out and save themselves from further embarrassment.
The three issues that found mention during the initial phase of the talks included: one, setting free the Taliban prisoners – these were deemed to be with the army and hence their release could have only been possible with the army’s concurrence. This particular condition has since morphed into a more doable release of the noncombatants. Two, compensation to the ‘people’ of FATA who have lost their relatives and home and hearth in the military operations with these groups. This is a political decision and will need to be dealt with at that level. And finally, the withdrawal of the army from those areas of North and South Waziristan that are home to many of the Taliban.
When you give someone a whole lot of money, release their fighting cadres from your custody and then withdraw your own troops from an area that you have beaten the other side out of, what you get is the other side now controlling the areas that it had lost earlier with added strengths of more troops released from your custody and significant financial support gained in compensation for the losses that they had borne when starting an insurgency against the state. This may not have a name as yet as a phenomenon, but it should be called the Circular Error of Stupidity. Let’s call it CES from now on.
The army would not have liked its name to be added to the list of those who became a part of this CES. The government, unaware that such a thing even existed, would have been equally ill-informed about its consequences. However, it knew that a dialogue could not succeed without ‘give’ and ‘take’. What it was to ‘take’ was pretty clear – peace at all costs. What it was to ‘give’, however, gave it much greater worry. The government did not want to ‘give’ alone; it hoped to have the army on the signing sheet when it bartered peace.
Philosophically, the approach to the peace issue is contradictory. The state hasn’t lost, but is bartering for peace. The army, on the other hand, is meant to ‘win’ peace – unless it has lost the war in which case it cannot win peace and must then agree to ‘finding’ peace through other means. In this case, the political leadership will barter for peace to make up for the inadequacy of the army. In the process of asking the army to sit on the committee, ‘bartering’ for peace would actually mean that the army has indeed already lost; which is not the case. Hence the army chose out.
By opting to stay out, the army suggests that it be afforded an opportunity to lose first – which can only come through a war or an operation – and then the government would indeed be within its right to barter for peace. Or, if the government shies away from a war, or seeks to barter peace through accommodation and dialogue, it must do so on its own. The dialectic may seem complicated but reflects the realities as they stand. It also explains that the dialogue for peace in the manner that the government seems to be pursuing does not stand to reason and, therefore, seems perplexing to most.
On the precondition of the release of the non-combatants, the army has been categorical: none exist. However, if there are some who can be identified by the Taliban, the army will consider if no serious charges against them remain. One feels there is reasonable chance to progress on this point if at all there are any non-combatants. Some commentators with more intimate knowledge now agree that there was a possibility that some people from the Swat operation may have been held in 2009, but are unlikely to be still in any kind of custody; especially children and women.
Asking the army to vacate areas where it has won its control and established, inter alia, the government’s writ cannot be a reasonable demand for the following reason: no one vacates an area won by its force unless there is sufficient compensatory reason to do so – which in this case is the Taliban shedding arms and submitting themselves to the legal processes of the state of Pakistan. There should also be sufficient deterrent measures in place to keep a check on any recourse to their bad ways. Without any such assurance, handing areas back to the Taliban is akin to granting them the geographical base that they have been endeavoring to create for their movement.
Under such dubious conditions, it is unlikely that the dialogue process will give us a durable end-state. One of the sides must concede and move away from its averred gains. If the state compromises, it loses considerably in the longer run. Again, will the Taliban give up on their idealism or the opportunity to gain, especially when the Afghanistan chapter is yet to find a closure? The possibilities are endless and the army may just be right to hedge. The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its Deputy Chief of Staff.