Counter-narratives and red lines needed

‘Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win’. (Sun Tzu- The Art of War translated into English in 1905 by Everard Ferguson Calthrop)


Sun Tzu’s old adage hints at an entity’s ability to encircle its adversary by using up its domestic capacity and form a winning combination. This quote has special relevance in times when the Pakistan government has decided to resort towards a crippled negotiation process with the banned TTP. If one is to consider negotiations and the art of diplomacy in tackling such a fragile process, bringing out the best possible outcome mandates pernicious touches which are a product of domestic cohesion. Tzu’s views can be considered a throwback to more idealistic days. Yet the ability to coax and cajole even the most rigid of entities (no more so than the TTP here in Pakistan for example), mandates a holistic response which accommodates an array of different school of thoughts and results in a competent line of action for future discourse.  Sadly, this imagination is completely absent, given the composition of the committee constituted by the government to negotiate with a banned outfit. Neither, does it represent the aspirations of the people of Pakistan who essentially deserve to be stakeholders in the process, nor does it live up to the claim of being able to initiate a break through, in a process which was controversial from the outset.

Trenchant commentators would claim that the entire negotiation process is a farce and as a student of conflict resolution, I blindly subscribe to that view. However, with the government deciding to negotiate with an entity which challenges the writ of the state and is hell-bent on ensuring that its puritanical agenda is enforced throughout the country, the last thing that anyone expects is for elected representatives which define the aspirations of the people of the country, to be completely absent from the process. When we talk of democracy, it definitely has or should have its merits in a nation which has managed to complete its first democratic transition in 2013 and achieve land marks such as the passage of the 18th Amendment by the National Assembly in 2010. Democratic ideals are hence expected to be upheld in letter and spirit, yet the government’s ability to deal with the clout of terror almost explicitly lacks a mutual consensus amongst a diverse pool of political parties, on defining Pakistan’s ‘ red lines’, let alone the contours of the dealing with the TTP.

This fact becomes even more evident when one examines the composition of the committee in contention., Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has not only opened up an opportunity for the TTP representatives to lay out their outrageous prerequisites for a peace agreement, but also managed to isolate those who harbor divergent schools of thought which are contrary to the PML (N)’s historical stance on Islamism and counterterrorism. Liberal parties for example, such as the controversial Muttahida Qaumi Movement (a party of immigrants and pseudo-secularists) or the Pakistan People’s Party could have formed a potent enough component of the committee, which in essence falls remarkably short in representing the aspirations of the Pakistani public. Interestingly, statements from former representatives of the people of Pakistan such as Rehman Malik who served as the Interior Minister under the Zardari Administration, provides a defensive mechanism against the policy of pacification pursued by the PML (N) government. He cited clause 11-A of the Anti- Terrorism Act or the (ATA) of 1997 in a press conference, where a peace agreement with the TTP would essentially entail a flagrant violation of the constitution of the country.

On the TTP front Maulana Abdul Aziz as a candidate for pursuing this controversial process is an alarming prospect, given that the cleric had gained notoriety after the Lal Masjid episode in 2007 due to his puritanical rhetoric, which in many ways is consistent with the TTP’s demands. He is, quintessentially, at the helm of a process which is being pursued to bring a halt the clout of terror in the country. In light of this a counter narrative had to be developed which goes beyond pacification. The NS government could have done more than accommodate candidates such as seasoned journalists such as Rahimullah Yusufzai, who may be a man of erudition particularly when it comes affairs pertaining to Afghanistan and the restive FATA region, but is well suited for laying out legitimate claims which have sidelined the aspirations of the tribal belt, instead of being embroiled in a fragile negotiation process. Similarly, Rustam Shah Mohmand’s expertise which ranges from serving as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan to upholding the post of the Interior Secretary, would have done well in communicating the demands of the Taliban to the government, but would essentially fall criminally short in suggesting a plan of action, or counter narrative if the process fails or falls short of expectations.

As the Swat model has suggested time and time again, elected representatives from both the left and right of the political spectrum, have a key role to play in diffusing conflicts even if it involves bland and insipid negotiations with controversial outfits. The blend of denouncing terrorist activities as well as avoiding policies of ‘pacification’, would have ensured that the the dilapidated segment of the population, via their representatives are given a fair say in the process. The government however is obsessed with diffusing schisms on either side despite having an elected mandate and promising a holistic and inclusive policy against the challenge at hand.  Ironically, this policy of ‘pacification’ should have been the antidote for the BLA movement in Baluchistan, where legitimate claims of economic and political isolation have been articulated time and time again.

In the end it boils down to a lack of long term strategic thinking and planning with regard to dealing with a banned ‘stake holder’. When news reports continue to flood in about what the TTP has laid out in front of the government has ‘ preconditions’ for engagement, one is left to wonder when a counter narrative would surface that defends the essence of the constitution. It seems as if Sun Tzu’s delicate, subtle touches which also shed light on boosting up one’s domestic capacity, is limited to rhetoric alone.

Posted in , Afghanistan, Internal Security, Militancy, Negotiations, Pakistan, Peace, Politics, Security

Hamzah Rifaat

Hamzah Rifaat

Hamzah Rifaat is a gold medalist with a Master of Philosophy degree in the discipline of peace and conflict studies from the National Defense University in Islamabad. He holds a diploma in World Affairs and Professional Diplomacy from the Bandaranaike Diplomatic Training Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He was a freelance writer and blogger for the Friday Times and received a CRDF scholarship to the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where he studied nonproliferation and terrorism studies at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He was also a Graduate Editorial Assistant for Women's International Perspective, a global source for women's perspectives, based in Monterey. He has also represented Pakistan as a member of the CTBTO Youth Initiative 2016. His writings encompass political and internal security issues in Pakistan and he regularly contributes for The Diplomat Magazine. Hamzah is a former SAV Visiting Fellow (January 2016).

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2 thoughts on “Counter-narratives and red lines needed

  1. Hamzah:
    Many thanks for blogging about these talks, which have completely baffled Pakistan-watchers in Washington. Is it too much to expect that the Prime Minister might explain his choice of interlocutors and what he intends to do if (a) these talks go on interminably or (b) if some agreement is reached?

  2. Thank you for question Mr. Krepon. I believe that it would be unrealistic to expect the Prime Minister to explain his choice of interlocutors, if this crippled negotiation process continues unabated due to a number of reasons. Firstly, the representatives which range from journalists to retired diplomats are a combination aimed at appeasing the military establishment, of which the latter has had schisms with the PML (N) in the past, over issues pertaining to national security ( no more so than the Kargil episode of 1999). The combination also includes ‘ right wingers’ and pseudo centrists which have gained acceptability from the bureaucracy for performing, a negotiations ‘stunt’ to gauge the fallibility of the TTP. This is despite the fact that the committee set up has irked the Pakistani public at large, of which many harbor a sentiment of being isolated from the process, given that their elected representatives ( some of them staunch opponents of the PML N’s policies), are absent from the process. So for the Prime Minister to explain why he has excluded elected representatives ( particularly from the leftist parties), will be untenable, given the former’s desire to level out the friction with the establishment.

    Any chances of an agreement seem distant at this point in time, however. The TTP claiming responsibility for the assassination of 23 FC soldiers in 2010, along with a recent spate of attacks in Peshawar during the negotiation process, has tempted the Sharif government to call off talks with the banned outfit today and resort to consulting the military establishment instead, of which his meeting with the COAS, General Raheel Shareef is extremely significant. Some pundits would claim that a large scale military operation impends, and I would subscribe to that view given that the day light between a conservative government and a controversial outfit is increasing as casualties continue to mount, and Sharif could use this opportunity to impede leftists, woo the MI and consolidate his power amid growing domestic resentment

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