The Taliban is Winning Them Over: Time to Talk to the Pakistani People, Mr. Sharif

Pakistan’s government suspended peace talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on February 17, after a faction of the Taliban claimed the recent brutal killing of 23 paramilitary soldiers. The TTP also claimed responsibility for a blast in Karachi on February 13, which killed more than 12 elite police officers. After the suspension of talks, the Pakistani army has attacked and killed suspected militants in the country’s tribal areas multiple times. It’s unclear whether this violence is the beginning of a sustained military campaign against the TTP or a shorter, more targeted assault. In any case, it seems that talks will not resume until each side can credibly convince the other it is committed to a ceasefire, which is unlikely.

Political analysts have long predicted that peace talks with the Taliban will eventually fail, as they have in the past. The Taliban does not recognize Pakistan’s government or its constitution, leaving no middle ground for negotiation. It wants to set up a system of extreme Sharia law, with Mullah Fazlullah as the leader of Pakistan, and Mullah Omar as Amir-ul-Momineen, the commander of the faithful. In other words, it wants to plunge Pakistan into the dark ages, or, more accurately, the Afghanistan of the 1990s. Its method of choice to reach this goal is violence and terror. How does one negotiate with that?

Poorly planned peace talks with the Taliban

Pakistanis have argued that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was trying to exhaust the option of talks in order to draw support from the public in favor of conducting a military operation. That may have been the case. But Mr. Sharif also launched the talks carelessly, without any preparation. This poor implementation was after months of already shuffling his feet on his counterterrorism strategy. And in the process of conducting these poorly organized talks, he lent the Taliban dangerous legitimacy and has, thus, done Pakistan serious harm.

Sharif put together his government committee for talks at the last possible minute before his January 29 announcement of peace talks with the Taliban. His choice of committee members, who were not drawn from the parliament, was widely criticized. Worse, the government gave the committee no mandate, set no preconditions and defined no scope or time frame for the talks, thereby handing the TTP free rein to set the agenda. The Taliban was quick to assume the upper hand and dictated terms and the tone of the talks. It selected a “mediating” committee of fundamentalist religious clerics who are firmly on the TTP’s side. Then it warned the government to “desist” from “unnecessary conditions,” like conducting talks within the parameters of Pakistan’s constitution.

The talks gave the Taliban the mainstream platform of their dreams to articulate its case, and it proved alarmingly good at doing so. Shahidullah Shahid, the TTP’s spokesperson, even said about the talks, “The government has now accepted our reality; this is our victory.” Members of the Taliban-selected mediating committee became fixtures on nightly talk shows, advocating for the Taliban cause, telling lies, commanding the public’s ears. They brainwashed an audience all too ready to believe, an audience that was also offered no counter narrative. The TTP continued to also lie: Shahid recently said that Pakistan’s constitution doesn’t have a single element reflecting Islamic injunctions.

What the TTP wants

In a nutshell, here are the TTP’s main demands: cut off relations with the United States, end drone strikes, impose Sharia law. Pakistanis know that these are the Taliban’s demands: In my interviews with students in both public and private high schools in Punjab over the past few months, many of them, both girls and boys, said that terrorism in Pakistan would end if these conditions were met. When the TTP articulates its demands this way, many Pakistanis do not immediately see the danger that lurks behind them, and sympathize with the Taliban cause. For example, drone strikes are already deeply unpopular in Pakistan, as is the United States. Many would welcome less dependence on the U.S., to which the government is seen as subservient. Finally, multiple generations of Pakistanis have been taught to believe that the country’s ideology is Islam, that the country was created to be an Islamic state with a compulsion to practice religion. It is tragic that Pakistan’s founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s vision is lost (he intended it to be a Muslim-majority state with the freedom to practice religion) and has been Islamized out of recognition.

That Islamization is unlikely to be reversed—Pakistan will likely always remain an Islamic republic. However, it is still very far from being the kind of fundamentalist Sharia state that the Taliban envisions. The Taliban wants a state in which only men are seen in public, no women work, and no girls’ schools operate; a country which is completely severed from the world economy, all forms of modernity and progress eradicated; a Pakistan whose long-fought for and recently achieved democracy is obliterated—in short, a Pakistan we would not recognize.

The way forward for Sharif

The problem is that many Pakistanis do not recognize the extreme changes that would come with Taliban rule. Meanwhile, Sharif’s government is silent, fumbling, weak. It offers no counter narrative, articulates no vision and sets no preconditions. Giving the Taliban a platform to articulate its narrative, its way, as the peace talks have done, cloaks the Taliban’s demands as harmless, gives it legitimacy and generates followers, all the while hiding the danger that lurks behind. Surely Mr. Sharif does not want to give up leading Pakistan, nor his vision of Pakistan as a modern, economically prosperous nation. Surely he does not want those who want to overthrow him to drive the narrative.

Slowly but surely, independent voices countering the Taliban narrative are being silenced. Last month, the Express Tribune, for which I write a regular column, was attacked for the third time in a few months. Three staff members were killed. After the attack, I was asked by the newspaper’s editors to refrain from writing about terrorism for the time being.

So Mr. Sharif must step up now and articulate his vision of Pakistan’s future. He must stand up for the sanctity of Pakistan’s constitution and its democracy. He must set preconditions for any future talks. Talks have to be held under Pakistan’s constitution—no ifs, no buts. His government must state its unwillingness to compromise on women’s rights, the rights of minorities and Pakistan’s place in the world. Most of all, if he is to win the war of words and ideas with the Taliban, and, along with it, the hearts and minds of Pakistani citizens, Mr. Sharif must start talking to the Pakistani people. Otherwise the TTP wins.