They returned to the fold of civilised society, swore allegiance to the Constitution and the state’s writ, surrendered their weapons, released hostages, repented of the killing of innocent civilians and agreed to work with community leaders and state officials to rebuild war-tattered Fata.
In response the state announced an amnesty scheme for everyone who admitted past wrongdoing and repented. It amended Article 247 of the Constitution to mainstream Fata and extended rights enjoyed by ordinary Pakistanis to tribesmen as well. Its team of leaders, legal experts and scholars devised indigenous local government and criminal justice systems for Fata within the framework of the Constitution, Sharia and tribal riwaaj. Fata emerged as the Switzerland of the East and everyone lived happily ever after.
If wishes were horses, peace talks with terrorists would produce happy endings. It has been said before and it needs to be said again: the predominant opposition to talks is not rooted in the belief that exterminating members of the TTP-led terror syndicate or revenge is a goal as desirable as peace. Notwithstanding the TTP’s savagery and the thousands of citizens lost to it, the argument for forgiveness over retributive justice would win any day if the probability of talks resulting in the surrender of terrorists — as opposed to the surrender of the state — was a reasonable one.
Let’s quickly revisit our experience with militants and peace agreements. In 2004, the Shakai agreement was signed with Nek Mohammad in South Waziristan. The government was to release militants taken prisoner during the military operation and pay compensation for casualties and collateral damage. Nek Mohammad and his men were granted amnesty. In return, the militants agreed not to attack state property and personnel and to desist from participating in armed conflict in Afghanistan. There was no requirement to oust foreign militants or surrender heavy weapons.
Within days the agreement blew up in the military’s face: Nek Mohammad reiterated allegiance to Al Qaeda and had to be taken out by a drone.
In 2005, the Sararogha peace deal was signed with Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan. Baitullah agreed not to attack government functionaries and property or harbour foreign militants. In return he and his men were afforded amnesty for past actions. There was no prohibition on cross-border actions.
In 2006, the 16-point Miramshah peace deal was signed in North Waziristan with Hafiz Gul Bahadur and others. There were to be no terrorist attacks in Pakistan, cross-border attacks in Afghanistan or attacks on state personnel and property. Foreigners were to be asked to remain peaceful or leave. The government agreed to halt the military operation, release militants, pay compensation for collateral damage and withdraw the army to the barracks. Some understanding with Hafiz Gul Bahadur has probably survived but North Waziristan is enemy territory today.
In 2008, a peace deal was concluded in Khyber Agency with militants including Lashkar-i-Islam (Mangal Bagh) and Ansarul Islam (Qazi Mehbub). Militants agreed not to set up a parallel administration, initiate incursions into Peshawar, allow foreigners in the Bara area, attack government property, impede developmental work or brandish unauthorised weapons. The deal didn’t survive long and eventually a military operation (Sirat-i-Mustaqeem) was carried out. The 2008 deal with Faqir Hussain in Bajaur also didn’t last and was followed up by Operation Sher Dil.
The year 2009 saw the infamous Swat agreement with Sufi Mohammad and the TTP’s current head Mullah Fazlullah. It was agreed that Sharia would be enforced (Nizam-i-Adl Regulations, 2009 were promulgated), militants would be released, no private militias would exist, foreign militants would surrender and barber shops and vaccination campaigns would not be attacked. The state agreed to withdraw the army. In response militants annexed Buner and Shangla and rejected democracy and the Constitution. Operation Rah-i-Haq had to be launched to reacquire Swat.
What are the lessons? Peace talks failed each time not because of deficient skills of interlocutors or the talks’ agenda, but because of the fundamental clash between the interests of Pakistan and those of the militants. Militant leaders have no social or political prospects in a peaceful Fata. They are the new power elite within the tribal areas and across Pakistan (as patrons of the crime and terror-syndicate spread all over). It is a zero-sum game for them. Their power flows from the gun. If they put it down, they become irrelevant.
Re-establishing preeminence of traditional tribal leadership won’t happen amicably. The power has not shifted from the maliks to the army but from maliks to the militants. The hands of the clock can’t simply be turned back. The state needs to help strengthen and rejuvenate traditional tribal structures in Fata but it can only be done through introduction of new instruments such as local government and criminal justice structures contrived in consultation with the tribes. Bringing North Waziristan back within the fold of Pakistan is only one part of an anti-terror policy. As we continue to rely on the miracle of talks succeeding, let’s not suspend work on its other vital components meant for all of Pakistan.