The ‘Kaptaan’ who can bring peace – Maria Waqar

The ‘Kaptaan’ who can bring peace

He is pejoratively called Taleban Khan by Pakistan’s liberals, but Imran Khan’s potential to engage the Taleban can be a boon. It is often said that education is the panacea for all of Pakistan’s problems. But if you really want to see a case showing that education can, in fact, have no link with the capacity to solve problems, then try talking to Pakistan’s liberals about the Taleban. For the liberals, the Taleban are an evil force bent on transporting them from the comfort of their villas to some ramshackle place, where women totter in burkas and men are rendered indistinguishable by their long beards. The Taleban evoke an emotional reaction so intense in Pakistan’s privileged, westernised lot that their acumen is hijacked by ideological hatred. Their capacity to objectively discuss Talebanisation is undermined by their paranoia of possibly living a scene out of The Kite Runner in the future.

So, if someone tries to rationally talk about the Taleban, without denouncing them for their supposed intentions to set up madrassas in every nook and cranny, the liberals get irked. And if someone takes the liberty to suggest talking to the Taleban, he or she is labelled a Taleban apologist, fundo, extremist — the list goes on.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Imran Khan has faced great criticism for his views on the Taleban — he’s been called Taleban Khan, his opponents have sniggered about his supposed invisible beard, he’s been pejoratively labelled as a right-wing politician (as if a genuinely leftist leader, who never sought support from religious parties, ever existed in Pakistan). 

But, Imran Khan’s views are based on a reality that most of the country’s liberals have refused to acknowledge: The Taliban are here to stay. Yes, it would be great if a military operation could pummel them into submission and the vast inundation of aid-dollars could veer the “hearts and minds” of the people away from militants. And it would be truly wonderful if an asteroid-like drone could make them suddenly disappear. But guess what? That just isn’t going to happen. After countless drone strikes, several military operations and millions of aid-dollars later, the Taleban are stronger than ever. And, in fact, they are no longer holed up in a region that most affluent Pakistanis would have spent their lives not knowing a thing about if weren’t for the war on terror.  The Taleban are now in Pakistan’s major cities, blowing up places and people and coercing the population to abstain from voting.

The affluent people living in these cities have long negated the idea of even considering the idea of negotiating with the Taleban, thinking that this would transform Pakistan into Afghanistan one day. But the way the militants are currently trying to derail the democratic process is dreadfully reminiscent of their attempts to thwart Afghan elections in the past. Pakistan is on its way to becoming Afghanistan.

So in the light of these reality checks, let’s evaluate the options Pakistanis have at the moment. First, there’s the option of eliminating the Taleban completely. While getting completely rid of rebels and insurgents through military might is always a theoretical possibility for a state, its execution is often difficult and painful. It took Sri Lanka 17 long years to crush the LTTE — the inventors of suicide bombing — in 2009, but it came at a high human cost. Scores of Tamil civilians lost their lives and thousands were internally displaced, as the Sri Lankan military cracked down on the Tamil insurgents.

Another famous case of a successful counterinsurgency operation is the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) when the British forces crushed the Malaysian National Liberation Army in Malaya (modern-day Malaysia). Cited repeatedly in a plethora of counterinsurgency studies, the campaign involved a number of hardline tactics, including forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of people — now considered a war crime according to international law — to isolate the rebels. The “hearts and minds” campaign that was employed by British troops to win the support of the indigenous population in Malaya is often cited as the motive behind the cottage industry of Western-backed development programmes in Pakistan. But still, the military campaign was of utmost importance in successfully countering the insurgency. 

But can the success of the British operation that was fought in Malaya’s jungles be replicated in Pakistan’s far greater territory, which is now speckled far and wide with Taleban bases (the primary reason why the US policy of exclusively targeting Pakistan’s borderlands with drones has failed in crushing the militancy)?  And while the Tamil civilian population suffered enormously as the Sinhalese state attempted to annihilate the LTTE, will the Pakistani military, which has a disproportionately high representation of the Pashtuns, let people from their own ethnic group be collateral damage in the fight against militancy? These are difficult questions, but Pakistanis need to think about them before they make a choice at the ballot.

Now, let’s consider the option of talking to the Taleban.  Before calling me a ‘fundo’ or a biased Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporter, please note that the country which started the war on terror — the US — has been holding peace talks with the Taleban in Qatar to facilitate the country’s exit from Afghanistan in 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had once declared that the Taleban were never coming back to Afghanistan, is very much part of these talks. The US and Afghanistan have finally realised that it’s virtually impossible to crush the Taleban.

And many states have been able to successfully negotiate with rebels/insurgents and pave way for peace. One case is of Indonesia, which struck a peace deal with separatist rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2005 after the latter fought an insurgency for 29 years. Under the agreement, the province of Aceh was given  special autonomy and government troops withdrew from the area after GAM laid down their arms. And in 2012,  the Philippines signed a peace deal with Islamist rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf), brokered by Malaysia.

The most recent case is the decision of the Kurdish rebel group, Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has fought a guerrilla war against the Turkish state for the past 30 years, to withdraw its fighters to neighbouring countries in an effort to commit to peace.

Negotiating with recalcitrant non-state actors, however, is no easy feat for governments; it is, in fact, fraught with problems. The biggest problem, as Barbara Walter has argued in her seminal workCommitting to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars, is finding a neutral third-party guarantor who will ensure that the two parties will stick to the terms of the accord. Otherwise, how can the rebels credibly know that the much more powerful state will not simply gun them down just as soon as they lay down their arms?

The absence of an impartial actor is one major reason why the Pakistani government’s previous accords with the Taleban have failed, including the Swat deal. At this point, many people reading this  piece have absolutely no doubt that I am a complete ‘fundo’, but there are two things I want to pinpoint. First is that both sides — the militants and the Pakistani army — were constantly flouting the terms of the Swat deal. The deep mistrust on both sides made the weaker power, the Taleban, highly insecure and inclined to offensively exert their might — by kidnapping security personnel and refusing to put down their arms, for example.  

Secondly, detractors of the Swat deal often say that it bolstered Talebanisation, but here’s my problem with this thesis: Pakistan is getting Talebanised although there’s no deal in place. And it’s happening because Pakistan has no coherent strategy to deal with militants.

The ideal way for the state to deal with the Taleban would be to first debilitate them militarily, and then offer to negotiate with them when they are weaker. The examples that I have already cited show that negotiating with rebels when they are in a position of  weakness can prove fruitful. The Aceh peace agreement came after the 2004 tsunami had devastated the province and weakened the rebels, making them inclined to a peace deal with the government. And the recent decision of the Kurdish rebel fighters to withdraw from Turkey has followed months of quiet negotiation between the jailed founder of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, and the Turkish government.

Basically, negotiations with the Taleban just cannot be avoided. If Pakistan is to ever find peace, its leaders will have to talk to the Taleban at some point in time.  And there’s no better politician who can do this right now than Imran Khan. He’s the only one who has the guts to openly talk about the Taleban and has the potential to engage them. While we don’t yet know what his exact strategy is going to be, the strategies (or lack thereof) of other politicians vis-à-vis the Taleban have miserably failed. Those, whose minds are not blinded, can clearly see that this is, in fact, true.


Maria Waqar is a senior-sub editor at Khaleej Times. She can be contacted at

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