At long last, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have met, agreeing to speedily move ahead for peace talks with the Taliban.

Imran has appreciated the efforts made by government to keep the dialogue process alive, countering a growing lobby to push for a military operation.

The Prime Minister’s gesture to go to Imran’s residence evoked a positive response from the PTI chief. Imran said, “The Pakistan Muslim League government is the first in 12 years which is seriously working to establish peace.” He also observed that his party would support a military operation, if launched as a last resort. Nawaz Sharif remarked that the talks were entering a result-oriented phase: “We have to have a high-level of understanding and consensus… we will have to strive for achieving peace with full determination without shedding a drop of blood.” According to Imran, the government’s initiative has already split the Taliban into two segments— those who want peace and others who are bent upon perpetrating terrorist attacks. The latter must be dealt with firmly and paid back in the same coin.

As for the military, the dust of doubt kicked up in the media about them being not on the same page (with regard to policy towards the TTP) has been authoritatively cleared in the meeting held by the Prime Minister with the chief of Army Staff and the DG ISI last Wednesday. The Joint Staff Committee resolved that the armed forces would fight the menace of terrorism under a comprehensive strategy within the policy parameters set by the political leadership.

The visible seriousness of purpose on the part of government to go ahead with the dialogue can be seen in the expeditious formation of a new committee to hold direct talks with the Taliban. The committee also includes a representative of the PTI (Shah Rustam Mohmand). The Taliban intermediary committee led by Maulana Sami-ul-Haque after a meeting with Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Interior Minister, has already reached North Waziristan by helicopter to decide the venue and the timing of the face-to-face talks between the new government negotiators and the TTP.

The most pressing task of the government today is to achieve peace as quickly as possible. Hopefully the new initiative backed by the military high command, will yield satisfactory results in so far as theTTP is concerned. As for other odd and splinter groups who are unwilling to stop nefarious activities, they deserve to be dealt with a heavy hand as stated by the Interior Minister.

That drone strikes have been halted is optimistic. Another helpful development has been the commitment that the Taliban will adhere to the cease-fire as announced and possibly extend it beyond March. In this connection, it is only appropriate that the government take notice of the TTP complaint that search operations are continuing in various places including Bajaur and Mohmand tribal agencies. TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said in a statement that the TTP expected the government to not allow anyone to damage the process so peace talks could proceed successfully. The TTP’s legitimate concerns need to be appropriately taken care of by the relevant authorities.

Much will depend on the degree of flexibility exercised by the two sides. In this connection known Taliban demands for the release of prisoners and the return of troops to the barracks will have to be realistically dealt with. The current environment for the settlement of contentious issues appears to be fairly promising. 

In other good news the Pakistan economy has shown sudden  buoyancy with the rupee rising against the dollar. The dollar’s worth has come down from Rs. 110 to 98. Highlighting this happy development Finance Minister Ishaq Dar said that the strengthening of the rupee had reduced the external debt by Rs. 800 billion. The foreign currency reserves too had gone up to 9.52 billion. This was partly due to the deposit of 1.5 billion dollars in Pakistan’s Development Fund (PDF) by a “friendly Muslim country.” Rejecting reports, he observed that the government had not resorted to dumping dollars in the market to artificially strengthen the rupee. While Dar’s achievement has generally been hailed, doubts have been expressed about the sustainability of this marked improvement. How far it will result in the lowering of prices and meaningful relief to the common man remains to be seen. The next few weeks will show how stable and beneficial these remarkable improvements will be for the economy as a whole and for the poor and disadvantaged segments of society.

It merits some mention here that the consensus of leading economists in Pakistan and abroad is that sustainable improvement in the economy can only take place if structural reforms are introduced. In particular there is an unavoidable need for bringing about a number of meaningful changes in the taxation regime. As recently pointed out by Dr. Ishrat Hussain, a former governor of the state bank of Pakistan, out of four million Pakistanis who qualify for the minimum threshold of taxable income, only 1.5 million individuals and firms file tax returns. Again, less than 1.1 percent of GDP is collected as actual direct income tax. Ishrat’s finding is that the present taxation regime is highly skewed towards the urban, industry and formal sectors and is narrow, inequitable, regressive and distortive.  

Yet another matter warranting the appreciation of the PML-N government’s performance was the quick visit of the Prime Minister to famine-striken Tharparkar in Sindh and the announcement of Rs. 1 billion for the relief and rehabilitation of victims. It is devastating that the Sindh government allowed this tragedy to occur, because of neglect and mismanagement. This disaster provides a good opportunity to Bilawal and other PPP leaders to demonstrate their resolve to reform themselves and overhaul the administrative machinery to bring about a change for the better. One wonders how the ordinary and economically depressed people of Sindh felt about crores of rupees spent on the cultural festival while millions of Sindhis struggled to etch out a miserable life beset with drought, disease, an oppressive waderashahi and an uncaring and reputedly corrupt administration. One can only hope that the money provided by the federal government will truly be spent for the purposes for which it is given and not be misused or pocketed by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

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