Criticizing the on-going peace talks with Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), leader of the opposition in the Upper House Senator Aitzaz Ahsan rightly pointed out last Tuesday that the real stakeholders are not a part of the process. The veteran politician also demanded that representatives of women, shia and minorities should also be included in the government negotiation committee.
Building on the concerns expressed by the Senator, I wonder if the people of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, who have been affected the most by the erstwhile ‘Afghan Jihad’ and the current ‘War on Terror’, have a meaningful say in the so-called peace talks with the Taliban. According to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, nearly fifty thousands have been killed in terrorist violence across the country from 2005-2014. Out of these, 31,300 casualties have occurred only in FATA and KPK. This accounts for 63% of the total fatalities, as against only 3% (1602) in Punjab during the same period. It is worth mentioning that the figure of 31,300 does not include pre-2009 data for FATA. In addition, the socio-cultural fabric of the Pakhtun society has been destroyed. More than 700 schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have been either demolished or damaged since 2007. More than 600 tribal elders have been killed, leaving behind a huge social void that is being filled by the militants. Besides, Pakhtun singers, artists and actors have either been killed or forced to flee the country. Shias and non- Muslim minorities who had been living peacefully in the Pakhtun areas for generations have been persecuted. The uniquely pluralistic outlook of Pakhtun society has been demolished.
On one hand, these figures are a shocking reminder of how Pakhtuns, after being used as fodder in a re-gional geo-strategic rivalry, were left to fend for themselves in trying to manage the ugly outcomes of an overly-ambitious Afghan policy. On the other hand, these figures are also a sharp riposte to those who equate Pakhtuns with the Taliban. One of the many ironies confronting Pashtuns is that, despite being the main victims of terrorism, their perspective is conspicuously missing in the national and international discourse about terrorism. Many of the so-called Af-Pak region experts are out of touch with the complex socio-cultural dynamics of Pakhtun society and, therefore, have fostered a stereotypical understanding of the Pakhun society. For instance, there are some distinguished scholars and politicians who would lead one to believe that Taliban represent a tribal Pakhtun resistance movement. There are still others who, perceiving secular Pashtun nationalism to be breathing its last, argue that Pashtun Islamists are gradually absorbing Pashtun ethnic grievances and are becoming the torch-bearers of Pashtun nationalism. Finally, there are those who preposterously trace the radicalization of Pashtun society to what they perceive as the inherently “violence-prone” nature of Pashtun culture.
In reality, religion has never had much political significance in the Pashtun society, though it has had some social relevance. In contrast, ethnicity, tribalism and Pakhtunwali have historically played a more promi-nent role in shaping the Pakhtun political discourse. This partially explains why the freedom struggle for Pakistan with its heavy Islamic overtones could not significantly fascinate the Pakhtuns. Similarly in the post-colonial Pakistan, the Pakhtuns, concerned about their distinct cultural identity, expressed their un-ease with the over-arching Islamic nationalism of the State and strived for achieving cultural recognition in a more inclusive national narrative. Things began to deteriorate when the State began making concerted efforts to ‘politicize’ religious militancy and exploit Pakhtunwali for achieving its perceived strategic inter-ests. The subsequent tale of the Afghan Jihad and ‘Strategic Depth’ policy is too well-known to merit repetition. Not surprisingly, state patronage of a militant discourse in the Pakhtun land continued even after the chickens started coming home to roost.
Coming back to the on-going peace talks, I cannot agree more with Aitzaz Ahsan when he commented that ‘Taliban are negotiating with the Taliban’. One really wonders if the negotiators are even thinking about considering the Pakhtun perspective. Critics may ask if Pakhtuns are a politically homogenous group. The answer is, of course not. Broadly speaking, they are divided between the left-leaning nationalists and the right-wing Islamists. However, Pakhtun youth is frustrated by the fact that while the pluralist and progressive voices have been stifled, the radical voices have always found more willing/sympathetic ears in the media, academia and policy-making circles. Consequently, a spurious perception has been created that the Pakhtuns, especially the tribesmen, crave for Sharia rule and support Taliban.
While representatives from the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf, Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (S) are playing leading role in the discourse on peace talks, the Awami National Party (ANP)— which alone has lost more than 800 workers in the fight against the Taliban — is not a part of the process. Similarly, the viewpoint of Pakhtun civil society and intelligentsia has not even surfaced in the increasingly religiously charged debate about dialogue with Taliban. Those wondering about the perspective of Pakhtun civil society need only look at the Peshawar Declaration (2009). Interestingly enough, the people of the war affected areas have a quite different take on the issue of militancy than those living in the mainland Pakistan. The people of the conflict zone are fed up with the Taliban’s barbarianism but they also distrust the military. Most of them believe that the army and the Taliban are not enemies but friends. They cannot understand why the military failed in either killing or capturing the core leadership of the militants in all the previous military operations in FATA? Be it peace deal or military operation, the tribesmen find themselves trapped in a lose-lose situation. Particularly perturbing is the case of the anti-Taliban tribal Lashkars (militia) that have been facing the wrath of Taliban for ‘siding’ with the government? One of the recurrent features of the previous deals was that such anti-Taliban people were left at the mercy of their adversaries in the wake of each deal. Will these peace negotiations be any different? A big ‘No’, at least from the Taliban’s standpoint whose bloodthirsty intent was clearly revealed by their recent killing of the Chief of Mashokhel Quami Lashkar, Pir Israr Shah, along with his 7 relatives.
For peace talks to succeed, the government must take on board the Pakhtun civil society and tribal elders. The self-delusional distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban must be abolished. Besides, cessation of hostilities against anti-Taliban Lashkars, Shias and other minorities should be made a fundamental part of any would-be agreement. Moreover, Taliban owe an apology to the people of Pakistan in general and to those of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in particular. For ensuring social harmony in the tribal areas, Taliban, following the Pakhtunwali tradition of NANAWATE, should seek forgiveness of the families of all the tribal people they have ruthlessly killed. Finally, the ruling elites need to take serious practical steps to demonstrate that they care equally for the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. Otherwise, the current apathy is likely to have serious implications for the already-fragile national unity.