The government and the Taliban have both named negotiating committees in the last week, raising hopes that this will lead to an end to the violence that has afflicted the country for a long time. However, the timing of the announcements indicates that the two sides have got at least one eye on the impending drawdown of US troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. And it would be too convenient a coincidence that a Pakistani team led by PM’s Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz was in Washington for the ongoing Strategic Dialogue with the USA at the same time, and talking about Pakistan’s position in the post-drawdown situation.

One of the issues that it seems the Taliban hoped to settle with the team is its readiness to abide by the Pakistani Constitution. The Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had itself rendered its readiness doubtful by its opposition to the Constitution, reflected most recently in last year’s election campaign, when it killed candidates and workers in an attempt to stop the polls. However, the negotiators it has named include the chiefs of the PTI and JUI(S), as well as prominent members of the JUI(F) and the Jamaat Islami, all of which have accepted the Constitution, as well therefore as elections under it. All parties have taken part in elections, as recently as last year.

While one effect of the negotiation may well be to make the TTP concede that elections, and the Constitution under which they are held, are not against Islam, there does not seem to be any way that this government, or anyone, can stop this claim from being advanced again. The problem is that this claim is made based on orthodoxy, and is thus liable to be raised again in the future. This prospect has been raised again by Maulana Sami’s making it clear that the TTP will demand the imposition of Sharia. Thus the proposed negotiation will not resolve this particular issue, which has been at the root of the orthodox objections to democracy since before Partition. However, the immediate aim, of getting the tribal areas to quieten down while there is a drawdown of foreign forces in Afghanistan, is advanced by these talks.

The exact dimensions of the talks are becoming uncertain, with Imran Khan withdrawing himself, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman withdrawing the JUI(F) representative. The TTP has not just named a negotiating committee of outsiders, but a committee of insiders, which will presumably carry out the real negotiations, while the outsiders’ committee will act as intermediaries. Imran and Maulana Fazl have both wished the talks well, and Imran has said that his party’s KPK government will act as facilitators. The talks have not started, because of a comedy of errors about location.

These talks become all the more important because of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement with the USA, something which he has left to his successor, who is to be elected next month. The TTP has been engaged in fighting the Americans, which is its justification for its attacks on Pakistani security personnel: that they are US allies. The government needs to talk to the TTP because it needs peace in the country if it hopes to bring about the economic growth it promised in last year’s election campaign. The USA needs the TTP to stand down to accomplish its drawdown effectively.

At the same time, the talks would be an implicit acknowledgement by both Pakistan and the USA that the Taliban have won. If they had not, the talks would not be taking place. At the same time, these are hardly surrender negotiations, because those are between conventional armies, one of which has clearly lost. The surrender ceremony in Dhaka in 1971 was between the Pakistan and Indian Army commanders, and took place because the former realized he had been beaten. In the same way, the present talks can only be taking place because both sides feel that the fighting is not going where they would like it to.

There is another dimension to the talks that is in danger of being overlooked in Pakistan, as the political forces both within and without the government chortle over the impending end of the violence: they cannot be viewed in isolation from the situation in Afghanistan. The USA’s progress in its talks with the Taliban there will be reflected in the TTP’s attitude towards the Pakistan government. It is not because of its seeing the Pakistan government as a US surrogate, but because it is presently deeply involved in Afghanistan.

It remains to be seen how the USA acts. It has prevented previous talks by carrying out drone strikes, and thus still has a veto. One of the things to be seen is whether the talks go in the direction it wants, which would meet several aims, but move towards one direction: the stabilization of the post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan by its being accepted by the Taliban, who would accept its constitution, take part in its elections, and share in political power. The talks with the TTP thus depend not just on the US veto, but on Afghan Taliban cooperation.

The US go-ahead is inescapable because of its ability, through drone strikes, to prevent talks. It has apparently not committed to end them. The TTP’s attacks on Pakistani law-enforcing agencies have also had the effect of making the only viable alternative to talks an Army operation in the Waziristan Agencies, something it has so far avoided.

However, because of this, the issue of security looms much larger than over these talks than normal. The competition between the TTP and the PTI over who will provide the logistics of security cover tends to show that the federal government, including the military, are unable to provide security. That seems to be correct, but it is hardly a feather in the federal government’s cap.

What both sides need to realize are the hopes riding on these talks. People are looking forward to their bringing calm to the situation. However, that calm depends on a power that is not even party to these talks: the USA. Unless the USA is ready to withdraw all its troops from Afghan soil, a demand the TTP will make, according to Maulana Sami, and which the government cannot fulfill.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

Email:maniazi@nation.com.pk