What happens when you ‘talk’ to terrorists?

Editorial: What happens when you ‘talk’ to terrorists?


The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairperson, Benazir Bhutto, finally committed on Sunday in Larkana that she “would not talk to extremists who had shed the blood of innocent Muslims”. She made her stance clearer when she added the “precondition” of disarmament: “extremists should respect the law of the land” and she “was ready to talk to those who did not carry weapons”. In sharp contrast, unfortunately, the political line taken on the subject of terrorism by the APDM opposition is that the government should first accept the “precondition” of de-linking itself from the “American agenda” and then talk to the terrorists in Waziristan and Swat.

Who should submit to a “precondition”? The government, by abandoning the American agenda of fighting terrorism, or the terrorists, by laying down their arms? The opposition thinks that the government should give up the policy of killing Pakistani citizens at the “behest of the Americans”. And some leaders actually think that doing so would automatically make terrorism go away; others think that talking to the terrorists on their preconditions is the only way out. Indeed, some TV reporters interviewing people in Swat said on Sunday that the people of the area favoured negotiations with the local warlord Fazlullah. The TV reports strongly suggested that the people suffered because of the suspension of all economic life in Swat and had little confidence that the government would win against Fazlullah.

Recommending “talks” clearly denotes a certain kind of mind among those affected. From Latin America to Pakistan, “talks” become necessary in the eyes of the people when the government fails to quell violence by certain groups over a long period of time. This is the response of a “realist” citizenry ready to live under conditions dictated by the rebels. This is not the response of a people still hopeful of regaining their normal way of life. In the case of the people of Swat and Waziristan, this tendency to accept the governance of the warlords is growing strong. Therefore, the “invitation” to the government is not to insist on the sovereign writ of the state but to accept some kind of condominium with the warlords.

But Pakistan has had a taste of set-piece “talks” in the case of Lal Masjid. The consequence of this “negotiation” has unfolded in the shape of loss of all legal standing on the issue of Lal Masjid in the eyes of the Supreme Court and the people at large, and a continuation of the defiance of the writ of the state by the Ghazi clan now running it. The “negotiation” failed in the judgement of the government after which an operation was undertaken. But this is not how the media reported it. It reported that the government botched the talks and then also botched the operation which was unjustified in the eyes of the media. So the government, completely at a loss about how to handle Lal Masjid, lost Pakistan a legitimate right to handle terrorism. Significant sections of the media thus played into the hands of the terrorists because the government allowed it to give full coverage.

The mistake made by the German police in the 1972 Munich Olympics terrorist attack should have been reviewed by Islamabad. Eight terrorists killed nine athletes after taking them hostage following police chief Schreiber’s act of allowing the storming of the Olympic village in full sight of the TV cameras. Before attacking the terrorists, the German police failed to clear the people and the journalists from the area. The terrorists exploited the presence of TV cameras to win the battle. They watched local TV and saw the “secret” commando attack coming against them.

In the case of Lal Masjid, TV journalists faced two negative aspects of the state. They were hostile to the state according to the universally accepted rule of seeking accountability of the government; and they felt natural resentment at being repeatedly pushed back from the scene of the encounter. On the other hand, TV journalists had no way of holding the clergy of Lal Masjid to account: they were not well-versed in Islam and had been trained from their childhood not to challenge a cleric. When one woman journalist repeated the safe cliché of la ikrah fi din (there is no compulsion in Islam) to the danda-bearing girl-vigilantes of Lal Masjid, she was told that the edict applied only to non-Muslims; upon which the woman journalist simply shut up, little realising that her TV channel had lost the national argument to the terrorists.

Once again the country is girding its loins to abandon the state to the terrorists. What will be the grounds on which the “talks” will be held with the warlords? Will the conditions be laid down by the government, which has lost the status quo, or the warlords, who preside over the new one? How can any sane person say that the warlords should lay down the terms of negotiation? Meanwhile, the government will have to walk the slippery slope of gradual abandonment of more territory under the pretext of Islamising it.

Second Editorial: America to the rescue, alas!

An Indian newspaper has disclosed that India and Israel were ready in 1983-84 to attack Pakistan’s nuclear installation at Kahuta near Islamabad, perhaps in imitation of what Israel had done to Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, but that the plan was finally called off when the US State Department warned India that “the US will be responsive if India persists”.

This is probably true. But it may be difficult to swallow this disclosure these days because a national consensus is developing over the permanent “rascality” of the United States. However, it needs to be recalled that before General Zia endangered Pakistan, it was Yahya Khan who put Pakistan in a tough spot by losing the war in East Pakistan. There were plans afoot in New Delhi to attack West Pakistan. The myth that later developed was that President Nixon failed to send his 6th Fleet in time to prevent India from dismembering Pakistan. But as research explained later, Henry Kissinger’s famous “tilt” towards Pakistan was made not to save East Pakistan but to save West Pakistan from falling too, which actually worked. The Kargil episode will also have to be finally absorbed as an episode in “America saves Pakistan” because President Clinton made Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif withdraw troops from Kargil before India could attack from the sea.

If Pakistanis could learn to put facts above emotion, they might better understand the complexities of politics and hone their responses accordingly. *






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