Slow pace of peace

As attention turned only briefly to the largely unnoticed famine in Tharparkar district that claimed the lives of more than 150 children and caused a huge embarrassment to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)’s provincial government in Sindh province, the slow-paced peace talks between prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government and the Pakistani Taliban continue to hog the media limelight.

As attention turned only briefly to the largely unnoticed famine in Tharparkar district that claimed the lives of more than 150 children and caused a huge embarrassment to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)’s provincial government in Sindh province, the slow-paced peace talks between prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government and the Pakistani Taliban continue to hog the media limelight.

The stories of children dying of hunger in the deserts of Tharparkar, which borders India’s Rajasthan state, are gradually being relegated to the background. The tragic happenings in Tharparkar triggered a shouting match between former president Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP and prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, with their leaders blaming each other for exaggerating the issue to gain political advantage. The PPP-led Sindh government in particular attracted flak for spending more than a billion rupees on the Sindh cultural festival last month, but failing to help the famine-affected population of Tharparkar.

 Another issue that has caused bitter controversy was the ‘gift’ of 1.5 billion US dollars loaned by Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. It certainly added to the country’s low foreign exchange reserves and helped lift the value of the Pakistani rupee from 108 rupees to the US dollar to 98 rupees to the dollar. However, it also triggered a debate as to why the Saudi ruling royal family showed so much generosity to the government of Nawaz Sharif. It isn’t a secret that Nawaz Sharif has a special relationship with the Saudi royals and was given right royal treatment when he lived in Saudi Arabia for several years after being exiled by military dictator General Pervez Musharraf in the year 2000. And during his previous term as prime minister, for several years Sharif received free oil supplies for Pakistan from the Saudi government to offset the impact of US sanctions against the country for carrying out nuclear tests in May 1998.

 Opposition parties, led by the PPP, are raising a hue and cry over the terms attached to the Saudis’ agreement to ‘give’ Pakistan 1.5 billion US dollars and they are demanding that the Sharif government come clean on the subject. The opposition parties are alleging that the Saudis handed over the money after the Pakistan government had promised to send weapons and volunteers to Syria to fight alongside the Saudi-backed rebels against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Pakistan government has denied the allegations and made it clear that there has been no change in Pakistan’s foreign policy with regard to the situation in Syria.

 The subsequent visit of Bahrain’s ruler to Pakistan after 40 long years is also being interpreted as an indication of Islamabad’s revamped and friendlier policy towards Saudi Arabia and its close ally Bahrain, which has a Shia majority that is up in arms against the Sunni royal family.

Yet all these issues are a mere side-show to the on-again, off-again peace talks undertaken by premier Nawaz Sharif with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on January 29. Some progress has been made as the two sides have agreed to hold direct talks after exchanging messages through their nominated committees and preparing the ground for discussing substantive issues.

The unconditional and unilateral ceasefire announced by the TTP, the organization of the Pakistani Taliban, on March 1 is generally holding as there has been an appreciable drop in the number of terrorist attacks.

 The government too is holding fire and the airstrikes that were carried out by the military against the militants’ positions in the tribal areas have stopped. It has shown patience despite some provocative acts of sabotage by splinter militant groups disowned by the TTP. The decision not to avenge these attacks was contrary to the policy formulated by new Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif, who not only threatened retaliatory and punitive strikes whenever security forces and law-enforcement agencies were attacked, but actually began implementing such strikes.

There have been at least five major terrorist attacks since the March 1 ceasefire by the TTP. The suicide bombing at the District Courts in Islamabad in which 11 people – including a judge and four lawyers – were killed, was the most brazen. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the little known militant group, Ahrar-ul-Hind. The TTP denied its involvement in the attack, but it refrained from condemning Ahrar-ul-Hind. Militant circles claimed this group of militants had parted ways with the TTP since they oppose peace talks with the government until such time as Shariah (Islamic law) is enforced in Pakistan.

 Another bomb explosion that killed two soldiers from the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) in an attack on a military convoy in the Khyber tribal region was claimed by the almost unknown militant faction, Jaish-i-Osama (Army of Osama). The third terrorist strike in which another FC convoy was attacked, killing six soldiers in the Kurram tribal region, was claimed by the Ansarul Mujahideen, a group that had until recently been part and parcel of the TTP. Militant sources insisted that this group too has quit the TTP, wanting a tougher line against the military because of the alleged killing recently of militants in the custody of the security forces. A terrorist strike was also aimed at top administration officials in the Kurram tribal region, but all four officials survived the roadside bombing.

 Tension rose further in the aftermath of two subsequent terrorist attacks on the same day at Sarband town near Peshawar and in Quetta, in which police and FC vehicles were targeted; 21 people, including policemen and civilians, were killed. Once again, Ahrar-ul Hind, which first emerged in February, claimed responsibility for the attacks without being able to present any evidence to back up their claim. Many considered the claims dubious as a number of such splinter militants with unclear origins and agendas have surfaced lately.

 The attacks succeeded in dampening the spirit of the pro-talks lobby in the country and strengthened the hands of those advocating military action against the militants in North Waziristan and elsewhere in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. However, the prime minister reiterated his commitment to the peace process, promising to exhaust every peaceful option before ordering any military operation in the tribal areas. This finally resulted in a breakthrough, with an agreement to hold direct talks between the TTP’s central shura (council) and the government being reached. These secret talks were scheduled to take place in the last week of March in the tribal areas. Despite criticism from opposition members, who wanted the ruling politicians to lead the peace talks, the government has set up a four-member committee of serving and retired bureaucrats to do the job.

 The government was apparently unable to convince the Pakistan Army to allow one of its generals to become part of the negotiations team. However, it is clear that the army will work behind the scenes and be kept fully on board. The army will also be required to provide security for the negotiators. The army and its intelligence agency, the ISI, have in the past negotiated peace agreements with the militants and also fought against them. It was felt the army high command should remain involved in the process since the exchange of prisoners, the withdrawal of security forces from certain tribal areas and other contentious issues, pertained to the military.

 Despite this, pursuing the peace talks and restoring peace through the process continue to be a hugely controversial issue in Pakistan. Certain political parties, liberal elements, the Bralevi and Shia sects, as well as civil society groups, are opposed to dialogue with the militants. They would like the government to use force against the militants who have challenged the writ of the state and have been waging war against it for more than a decade. Besides, the TTP was outlawed and declared a terrorist organization by the government some years ago and its leaders are wanted men with a bounty on their heads for having killed and maimed thousands of people.

 As past peace agreements haven’t worked, there is scepticism whether the latest attempt at dialogue will end the conflict in Pakistan. In fact, there is a general feeling that failure of the peace talks would lead to a full-fledged military operation in North Waziristan, a militant stronghold. For now though, both the government and the militants want to avoid such an eventuality and give peace a chance.

Rahimullah  Yusufzai