In Pakistan, torn by economic crisis and sectarian strife, tormented by entanglements with Afghanistan and the US, nothing is ever straightforward – and yesterday’s speech to the National Assembly by the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was a perfect example. He appeared to be offering a last chance to the Taliban militants who largely control the tribal areas along the Afghan border and have infiltrated the major population centres across the country: either enter peace talks with the government or face an all-out military assault on their strongholds. As usual though, matters are not so simple.
Mr Sharif was speaking after a spate of attacks – 17, by a conservative count, this month alone, killing 100 people or more – that have brought renewed demands to bring Pakistan’s endemic violence under control. “I am sure the whole nation would be behind the government if and when we launch a military operation against the terrorists,” he declared. Instead, however, he has set up a four-man team (two veteran Pakistani journalists, two retired officials) to enter negotiations with the Taliban, with no pre-conditions, no specific mandate and no clear timeframe for the discussions to produce results.
This is not the first time that Mr Sharif, arguably his country’s most experienced civilian politician, has offered talks. And rightly so. In neighbouring Afghanistan, where the US is determined to wrap up its 12-year-long war against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida by the end of 2014, only a peace deal between the government and the Islamists can ensure the stability that wretched country needs to rebuild. Much the same applies to Pakistan. It is, moreover, doubtful that any military offensive by Islamabad in the tribal areas would eradicate the Taliban, not least given the collusion between the militants and elements within the armed forces and Pakistan’s powerful intelligence services.
Nor can Mr Sharif’s calculations about how to deal with the militants be separated from his country’s fraught relations with the US. These have improved since the nadir that followed the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, under the very nose of the Pakistan authorities. But mutual suspicions linger.
The bitterly resented US drone strikes against militant targets on Pakistani territory appear to have reduced of late. Nonetheless they continue to be seen by the government, not to mention many ordinary Pakistanis, as a humiliating violation of national sovereignty, a feeling that ensures some popular sympathy for the radicals, for all the public weariness and exasperation with the violence. It should be remembered, too, that the last offer of negotiations collapsed after a drone attack killed the movement’s leader Hakimullah Mehsud in November.
But a negotiated settlement is the only long-term solution. As the US disengages from Afghanistan, many in Washington would like nothing better than an all-out assault by Pakistan on militant sanctuaries across the border. The lesson of history is that this, too, would ultimately fail. Pakistan and the US have no choice but to work together. But terrorism will only be vanquished when the conditions that breed it are removed. This is, again, anything but straightforward. Yet talks between the government and the Taliban are the only place to start.