By pounding militant positions with fighter jets, the Pakistani state showed that it could no longer engage in talks with the militants. The predictions that this is how the talks would end had come true, though it seems they did so not because of any breakdown of an agreement, but because of the absence of a ceasefire.

It must be realized that the desire for a ceasefire is why the government was willing to hold talks in the first place. What seems to have been the problem is that the militants either lack control over the constituent, or want the right to have their cake and eat it too, to have both the talks (and the recognition this implies) and the right to strike whenever they want.

The militants want the right to strike whenever they want because their focus (and power) is the suicide attack. In an Islamic culture like Pakistan’s, the barriers to suicide are very strong, because the act carries strong theological strictures. However, Islam also carries a strong predisposition to martyrdom, buttressed by immense rewards. The conversion of ‘suicide attacks’ into ‘martyrdom operations’ has meant that suicide attacks are perceived to be highly rewarding, not just for the militants carrying them out, but also for their facilitators. While the attackers themselves must be given constant motivation, the facilitators, whose lives are not at risk, get the opportunity to earn divine reward.

Apart from theological reasons, there is also the assumption of obedience. The state negotiators have to talk to only one side, then come and tell the competent authority in the state, in this case the Prime Minister, what has been agreed. If this is acceptable, the competent authority agrees, and tells all subordinate authorities, which have not participated in the talks, to implement the terms. However, in this case, the militants are not a monolith. Talks are held when there is the recognition that further fighting will yield less results than actually holding talks. The components of a coalition have to be brought to an agreement on this point. The government is not a coalition, but the militants are. Militants who disagree would feel that continuing to fight would yield results and they would thus continue to fight.

The TTP shows signs of suffering from this problem. The frequency of meetings of the central committee alone should indicate that the question of talking to the government is causing difficulties, especially since the question of Sharia has been raised. The hardliners amongst the militants are said to have demanded that Sharia be imposed on the country before any agreement of a ceasefire. The problem is not so much what Sharia is to be imposed, but who is to administer it. The government, for obvious reasons, will not bow to this badly disguised grab for power.

Clearly, the two sides are in disagreement about the nature of the talks. Both seem to have thought the other was surrendering and neither was right. In a negotiation, that fore knowledge, agreed upon, is essential. In such talks, both sides know that the talks are about a surrender by one side. The TTP’s decision to kill held prisoners indicates that one faction, and perhaps foreign backers, did not want talks to succeed.

It is perhaps symptomatic that the killing of military personnel, including a major general, did not stop the process, but the slaughter of 23 Frontier Constabulary personnel did. At the same time, apart from the vitiation of the atmosphere that this represented, there was also the lack of condemnation of the killings by the negotiators. It is worth bearing in mind that the Taliban had named a negotiators’ supervision committee, which created doubts in the government’s mind about how far the Taliban negotiators could actually go. Even this über-committee carefully refrained from any condemnation of the slaughter of the captives. This obliges the conclusion that the TTP leadership believes that the slaughter was more important than the talks. Whether the talks were meant to buy time, or were meant to fulfill a religious obligation is something that can only be made clear by someone with a detailed knowledge of the talks that did take place. However, it should be remembered that the demand for implementing Sharia is like the demand for conversion offered to non-Muslims before battle. Non-Muslims get the option of paying the jizya in place of conversion or battle, but Muslims do not. They are only supposed to return to obedience. In a very roundabout way, the TTP is accepting the constitution, because by engaging in talks they are indicating that they accept the government as essentially Islamic, only not implementing Islam fully. It is irrelevant whether the militants are following the correct version of Islam or not. What is relevant is that they believe they do.

The killing of the Frontier Constabulary personnel has received a response from the government in the shape of bombings. That has been accompanied by statements that the doors for talks remain open. It seems the bombing is not the operation which the USA had been demanding, but merely an act of revenge. If that is the case, it indicates that if the militants have shown, in the shape of suicide attacks, what they can do, the state has also shown how it will react. The bombing has another significance. It represents a return to the pre-partition strategy of controlling the region through air power rather than through troops. It is to be noted that this use of air power was pushed by the Royal Air Force after World War I, which is when it was founded (1918). In this kind of asymmetric warfare, not only do the militants have no presence in the air, they do not even have any ground-based air defense capabilities. In Afghanistan, it is this complete air superiority, of which drones are an important component, though not the sole, that has caused the most concern to the Taliban.

Now, if the militants want talks, it will be up to them to take the initiative. So far, the government has done so and with less than satisfactory results. While it might still pay lip service to this, the talks are indeed over. If there are any new talks, they will be based on new realities.

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