WHEN is an offer to negotiate not really an offer to negotiate? When it is made by the TTP, it appears. First, Asmatullah Muawiya, leader of the so-called Punjabi Taliban, threw out a surprising feeler: give us a Sharia-compliant (read: the militants’ version of the Sharia) constitution in Pakistan and withdraw support for the foreign-led war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and the TTP may deign to negotiate with the Pakistani state. Then, the TTP spokesman, Ihsanullah Ihsan, a man whose proclivity to claim credit for virtually any attack inside Pakistan is matched only by the frightening possibility that he may well be right, endorsed the letter sent out by Mr Muawiya. Now, Hakeemullah Mehsud has appeared alongside Waliur Rehman in a 40-minute video and has been quoted as saying: “We believe in dialogue but it should not be frivolous. Asking us to lay down arms is a joke.” The joke, and a distasteful one at that, may well be on the Pakistani state and society.
In principle, talks with any enemy cannot be written off altogether; in practice, the business of truce and negotiations can be fiendishly difficult, and often counter-productive. The history of negotiations and deals with militants fighting the Pakistani state is not very encouraging, and for good reason: the negotiations were not conducted from a position of strength; the enemy was not sincere; and an enforcement mechanism was missing. What that translated into was the militants’ taking advantage of the space afforded to them by the state to grow their networks and solidify their bases. All of this is well known enough. But Hakeemullah Mehsud has laid bare the deeper problems of negotiations with the TTP: their vision for Pakistan is antithetical to the vast majority of Pakistanis’ vision for this country. In Mr Mehsud’s reckoning, democracy is against Islam; armed militias who challenge the state’s authority have a legitimate existence so long as they pull around their shoulders the cloak of Islam; Pakistan should publicly and forcefully work for the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan; and Al Qaeda is an ally worth dying for.
None of this leaves much room for negotiation. The TTP’s charter of demands essentially amounts to a surrender of the Pakistani state to the militants. Quite why the militants have chosen this moment to moot the idea of peace talks is less clear. The kidnapping of Levies personnel from the outskirts of Peshawar on Thursday only underscored the once-again rising tide of Islamic militancy. Perhaps the militants understand that talking about peace will only make the elusive consensus against militancy in Pakistani society that much harder to achieve.