In a country and in a region that has witnessed prolonged conflict, there can be no quarrel with the proposition that the smallest chance for peace has to be grasped. But the recently launched talks between the Pakistan government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan give rise to too many disquieting questions, including about the kind of peace Pakistan wants, and the Pakistani state’s vision of itself. After months of contradictory statements, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s acceptance of the TTP’s long-standing offer of talks came in the midst of a ruthless bombing campaign by the militants from Karachi to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and right after 20 soldiers were killed near the North Waziristan tribal area. Representatives of the two sides have already met once to plan a “roadmap” for the negotiations. The TTP is not participating directly, but through interlocutors in two of Pakistan’s Islamic parties, the Jamat-i-Islami and one faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, almost as if these were its political wing. One of the TTP’s negotiators is the former head of the Lal Masjid, the Islamabad mosque that under him became a terrorist stronghold. These representatives will be accountable to a 10-member Taliban committee. Through its own interlocutors, the government has said that talks must be held within the framework of the country’s Constitution and that their scope be limited to “insurgency-affected” areas. It wants the TTP to stop its terrorist attacks, and a time frame fixed for talks. It is yet not known if the Taliban and the government are on the same page on these points.
This is not the first time that Islamabad has tried to make peace with the militants. Every previous effort failed because the Taliban refused to submit to the state’s writ. Each time they came back stronger, their network of militancy in Pakistan expanding constantly, while the state’s own confusion on militancy and jihad helped Islamists occupy a large share of the national mindspace. It has come to a point where the Taliban now dictate terms, confident too with their brethren Taliban in Afghanistan on the ascendant. If Pakistan’s political leadership and its security establishment had at all absorbed the lessons of 2001, they would have been doing everything to prevent a repeat of history after the drawdown of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Instead, what appears to have trumped again is Pakistan’s desire for influence in Afghanistan, plus the delusion that it can somehow control the Taliban and other militants on both sides of the Durand Line. It is hard to escape the feeling that the region’s instability is going to get worse. India has to be on guard.