An attack at Karachi airport by the Taliban has more or less brought to an end the zig-zag and halting moves the government had been making to undertake a dialogue with the militants based in FATA and beyond.

As I wrote earlier, what has been missing all along was the seriousness of purpose; a sense of urgency to engage the Taliban leaders and come to some sort of settlement. Efforts made were tantamount to one step forward and two back, with the result that little of the desired solution was achieved. When I say that the government was found wanting in earnestly addressing the menacing challenge of terrorism, I recall the sluggish manner that characterized the process of establishing committees for engaging the Taliban, and how very little progress was made to overcome hurdles and mishaps. Yes, a strengthened cabinet committee on national security (CCNS) was set up to evolve our anti-terrorism approach and policy. It was also good to know that a National Counter-Terrorism Authority had been revived and empowered to coordinate all measures relating to intelligence and action against the terrorists. Further, that Rapid Action Forces were being set up at the center and the provinces. And in February last, a national internal security policy was announced. All these steps were commendable but they have remained more or less devoid of any coherent and consistent plans and operations on the ground.

More than anything else, the country needs peace. Without peace, there can be no sustained development. No personal security. The first duty of the state as Quaid-e-Azam said in his August 11, 1947 speech is to establish law and order. Poor law and order reflects poor governance. Poor governance means a weakened economy.

The elections last year brought in a politically strong federal government. It could run the country’s affairs without leaning on coalition partners, headed by an experienced leader and without having to face a troublesome opposition at least to begin with. Fortunately for it, the military too was cooperative and keen to respect the democratic dispensation.

Of the various formidable challenges faced by the government—including the sagging economy and energy shortages—the most daunting was terrorist attacks by the Taliban and linked extremist groups.

Rightly, the PML-N government held an all parties conference and secured a national mandate to open dialogue with the Taliban in September 2013. This decision was questioned by a number of vocal political and noteworthy media personalities, who stood for enforcement of writ of the government all over the country and who counselled against talks with militant elements, who were killing innocent people and destroying property.

The pro-dialogue case rested on the argument that a ten year long military action had failed to put an end to terrorist attacks. In fact, such violence had spread all over the country. Prior to 9/11, most of these militants were peace-abiding citizens. Only when the American-directed military action was launched against them, did they take to vengeful attacks on security centers and civilians. Thus, it seemed reasonable to address their legitimate grievances and reach a settlement through dialogue.

Looking back, it appears that the government did not handle the matter astutely and promptly enough. Committees were set up. Even a ceasefire was secured for more than a month but the opportunity was not urgently and wisely availed. The more radical elements amongst the Taliban split away and created difficulties by launching suicide attacks at different places including Islamabad. The military responded with aerial strikes by way of retaliation.

The dithering progress in pursuing the talks created a climate of increased indecisiveness and distrust.

After the Karachi airport attack, the chances of dialogue resumption have largely receded. An added provocation is the resumption of drone attacks by the US. What stand the federal government will take on the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is unclear. Contradictory reports have appeared in the press. The government’s position in this regard needs to be immediately clarified.

Additionally, what has been surprising in the engagement between the government and Taliban is the role played by the PTI, especially Imran Khan.

All along, he has been most vociferous for holding the proposed talks. When the process came to a halt however, Imran showed little interest to save the prospects of dialogue. Had he evinced even half of the resolve and enthusiasm demonstrated by him regarding rigging in the elections, there was every possibility of the talks picking up momentum. One wonders what his next move will be, now that a military operation is on the cards.

It is indeed most unfortunate that instead of securing peace in the near future, a full-fledged fight will now break out between our armed forces and the Taliban. The situation is all the more worrisome because of the exit of the NATO/ US forces from Afghanistan. Is Pakistan in a position to stop further attacks from Afghanistan and control the influx of refugees from across the border?

It is important that the government begins to engage the tribal population and their influential leaders to evolve a workable system of local administration. A welcome initiative has been taken recently by the new governor of KPK when he addressed a large jirga and promised to take up development projects in FATA. The federal government should strengthen his hands by giving him competent staff and sizeable funds for welfare and economic development.

The over-riding question now is: Is the government and are the people prepared for the blow-back from a full-fledged military operation, for which the cabinet committee on security has given the go-ahead to the top brass?

n    The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.