As expected, the PMLN’s last-ditch effort to give peace a chance has crashed. The two committees have failed to set the agenda for talks even as the Taliban’s deadly attacks on security agencies and civilians exact a bloody toll.
The PMLN government can claim that it went the extra mile to cobble a national consensus by appeasing nay sayers like the PTI, JUI, JI and assorted religious groups which are opposed to striking back at the terrorists. But the fact is that they have not been appeased because their stance is based on blind belief and core ideology, not cold facts and rational national interest. Indeed, if anything, they have hugely benefited from the enormous media publicity and legitimacy given to their demands and propaganda. A host of pro-Taliban non-entities have been paraded before the media and given space to make headlines by indulging in senseless debate over the meaning and scope of Shariah, jihad, suicide, martyrdom and barbaric acts like the slitting of throats and butchering of prisoners. Meanwhile, the TTP has availed the time and space to dig its trenches, arm its suicide bombers and activate its terrorist cells across the country in anticipation of a military counter-offensive. This has put the back of the military up and estranged it from the civilian leadership.
The PMLN’s policy of prosecuting General Pervez Musharraf for treason is also coming a cropper. The government’s efforts to take the former army chief to court and indict him for treason have been brazenly stymied by the brass. Even a change of command at the top has not diminished the military’s institutional resolve to resist a trial of a former army chief by civilians. The pressure is now on the courts to stand up to the military, a task they are not equipped to perform without solid practical support from the administration, which is lacking. General Musharraf’s counsels have raised fresh roadblocks by challenging the credentials of the judges of the Special Court and its writ jurisdiction. The trial is becoming farcical and losing steam even before the accused has been indicted. With the military stone walling Musharraf’s trial, the message going out to the public is that the generals are above the law.
Three new developments suggest that the long-awaited military operation against the TTP’s terrorism is about to start. First, in an unprecedented signal, the ISPR has released a statement detailing the killing of 460 people (including 152 security personnel) by the Taliban in the last five months. The implication is that the PMLN government’s appeasement tactics have exacted a heavy price and failed to dent the TTP’s killing spree.
Second, the interior ministry has finally stood up to warn of a looming terrorist threat to the state from infiltration of arms and terrorists across the eastern and western borders of the country. The DG-National Crisis Management Cell of the interior ministry has told the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Interior that Punjab is facing serious threats from the TTP and LeJ; Sindh from Al-Qaeda, TTP, LeJ, ethnic sub-nationalists and crime syndicates; Balochistan from Al-Qaeda, TTP, LeJ, BLA; Gilgit-Baltistan from TTP, LeJ; and Azad Kashmir from India-sponsored terrorism. He says that Islamabad, the capital, has become an extremely dangerous city because of the presence of several banned organisations and groups with sleeper cells of Al-Qaeda, TTP and LeJ. According to one report, the footprint of TTP/Lej/Al-Qaeda terrorism covers nearly one-third of Karachi. Nearly 7000 people, mostly terrorists and criminals, are currently on the Exit Control List at border entry and exit points.
Third, the PAF has launched targeted strikes against TTP and Al-Qaeda strongholds and hideouts in North Waziristan. These attacks are not in retaliation against any local violation of standing agreements by the TTP and Al-Qaeda as in the past but are aimed at a general degrading of TTP/Al-Qaeda assets in known regions. This action is most certainly part of a military strategy to soften up and flush out terrorists before launching ground operations to destroy them.
It is understandable that PM Nawaz Sharif is reluctant to launch the army in aid of civil power anywhere in Pakistan. Once the army comes in, it is difficult to withdraw it, as we have seen in Swat and Balochistan. It also shows up the civilians and undermines the legal order. But it is worse to sit back and allow the legal order and security of the state to be eroded by terrorists and unwittingly provoke the army to act on its own. PM Nawaz Sharif must now act forcefully to establish the writ of the state against the Taliban but also to protect that of his own democratically elected constitutional government against the military. If for that he has to swallow the bitter pill of looking the other way on Musharraf’s trial, he can live to fight that battle another day.