• July 19, 2024

Talking to the Taliban

A week before the fall of Kabul, my piece titled ‘Behold the wooden horse’ appeared in this space on August 7, 2021. Bear with me as I quote from the article to see if I had a point. Kindly note that to improve the flow, the quoted paras do not follow the order in which they appeared but are still maintained verbatim. It is important to go through them because we need to see if we have learned any lessons from our lived experience.

“If the Taliban take over Afghanistan, apart from the usual wages of war next door, Pakistan will be subjected to a double whammy. It will be blamed for their human rights violations and other bad practices. Despite what you are told, the Taliban have not changed their spots. And their victory narrative will export this destabilising ideology to Pakistan through the TTP and other aligned groups. Even if they don’t let their land being used against any other country, this ideological osmosis will embolden their twins in Pakistan.”

“Everyone who maintains that the ragtag group of self-appointed holy warriors is a friend of Pakistan needs to answer a simple question. What interests did the Taliban purportedly serve Pakistan, apart from being a massive drain on resources, an international liability and radicalising influence at home? It refused to resolve the Durand line issue. It regularly disregarded Islamabad’s pleas to show respect for human rights or to moderate its ways, resulting in the constant international marginalisation of Pakistan. But at home, its benefactors like Colonel Imam were adamant that it was the best friend the country ever had. The situation would change shortly, the Taliban government would fall and due to its cooperation with the US, Pakistan would come under attack from a newly formed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). A leader of the TTP would one day execute Col Imam in front of cameras.”

“In February 2001, Lt Gen (retd) Moinuddin Haider, the then interior minister of Pakistan, made an unusual visit to Kabul. There he presented a list of sixty Lashkar-e-Jhangvi absconders, including Riaz Basra, the notorious founder of the group. Intelligence reports had indicated, and Islamabad was convinced, that these absconders had taken refuge in the country. Their presence was denied by the Taliban but as there was an ideological convergence between the two, the Taliban would not have handed them over in any case. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this became abundantly clear as the Taliban refused to surrender Osama citing faith and customs.”

“Recently, as the Taliban expanded their sway, reports have emerged of the TTP terrorists living in territories controlled by their ideological Afghan twins. This has given birth to a host of questions. Why have the Taliban not taken any action against them? Why have Pakistan’s ‘brethren’ not expelled or handed them over? Could they do that if their control over Afghanistan is complete? The relationship between the TTP and the TTA (Afghan Taliban) has been a source of the good-Taliban-bad-Taliban binary for long. But the truth is that the TTA has never publicly disavowed the TTP. They say nothing and leave it to the obscurity and confusion artists to sow doubts in the minds of the public about the evidence before them. Today the TTA is not in power and even then, it is not ready to help in bringing Pakistan’s public enemy number one to justice. What is the chance that it would once it came to power? None at all, if the Riaz Basra and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi episode cited above is any proof. They are ideological twins and this time the TTA promises to return to power emboldened by the ‘defeated a superpower’ lore. This time it will be far more stubborn in its conduct.”

“In the past twenty years, Pakistan has been to hell and back. Before 2014, the state had to face the fact that its war on domestic TTP terrorists was not owned by its citizens. The new narrative was failing in face of the old narrative of the 90s. In 2014, the inhumanity and brazenness of the APS Peshawar attack would change that. But as a tiny cog in the vast machine that worked tirelessly to build consensus against terrorism, I can attest to the fact that even after APS it was not a cakewalk. Even when the consensus emerged it was fleeting and ephemeral. The TTP apologists never went away. If you are trying to find them among the political class you are forgetting that politics in Pakistan is driven by self-interest and not by ideology. Look for them among public influencers. Dime a dozen and ready (to) trigger.”

“George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.’ The wooden horse is at the door. Be careful what you wish for.”

(You can read the piece by visiting the following link:

https://tribune.com.pk/story/2314292/behold-the-wooden-horse).

A conquest and two OIC meetings later, the tail seems to wag the dog. The Taliban regime has not turned over any TTP leaders to Pakistan. In fact, Islamabad seems under pressure from the regime to hold talks with the terrorist group that has killed over eighty thousand Pakistanis, crippled countless others and destroyed property worth hundreds of billions. Of course, this is neither a big issue for the new rulers in Kabul nor their apologists in Pakistan because that is how TTP returned to power. An argument is often given by supporters of talks with TTP: “If the US-led coalition could negotiate with the Afghan Taliban, why can’t Pakistan talk to TTP?” This reminds me of an old Punjabi joke: A man’s buffalo falls ill. He contacts a friend who had gone through a similar experience and asks him what medicine he had given his buffalo when it fell sick. The friend shares a name. Our man goes to the bazaar, buys and administers the same medicine. His buffalo dies. Outraged, he contacts his friend again and accosts him. “You never asked. My buffalo had perished too,” comes the reply.

If you have not noticed, the US and its installed government are gone, and the Taliban now control the country. It was not US land, and it could afford to lose it. Pakistanis do not have that luxury. And from Shakai, Sararogha, Swat to countless other failed agreements, every time you cut a deal, TTP regrouped and returned with a vengeance. Today you can reset and reboot as much as you want. Tomorrow, like in Afghanistan, you may not have the luxury.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2022.

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