The recent developments over the talks with the Pakistani Taliban have raised serious questions about what Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif realistically hopes to achieve through the dialogue. Furthermore, political parties in Pakistan have begun shedding some of their ambivalence on their opinions vis-à-vis the talks with the Taliban. Barring a few who stridently oppose having any truce with the Taliban, most political parties continue to pay lip service to the need for a dialogue, and in the same breath some of them speak about how far the government could or should go with the Taliban.
Broadly, right-wing, conservative, mainstream parties like Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) are willing to go an extra mile to make the talks a success. Religious parties like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam- Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI-F), the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Sami ul Haq (JUI-S), Jamaat Islami, and other Shia or Barelvi parties like the Majlis-e Wahdat-e Muslimeen, the Sunni Ittehad Council, Sunni Tehreek etc. are divided on the basis of ideological, sectarian and doctrinal lines on how to deal with the Taliban. Political interests too influence the stances of some religious parties. The left-of-centre, ‘secular’ and progressive mainstream parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Search Results Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and Awami National Party (ANP), currently either support or virulently oppose the talks.
The ruling PML-N has taken a risky political gamble by entering into talks with the Taliban, especially because the government was on the verge of launching an all-out military operation when it suddenly changed its mind. At one level, the PML-N’s soft policy which detractors call appeasement will appeal to its core political constituency that is ambiguous towards the Taliban and other sundry Islamists and would like to see a negotiated end to the violence. An added benefit is that it robs PML-N’s main challenger in Punjab, Imran Khan (of PTI), of a platform that he could use to dent Nawaz Sharif’s vote bank. Given that Imran Khan was the most vocal advocate of dialoguing with the Taliban, Nawaz Sharif’s inclusion of him in the peace talks has disarmed Khan. A major driver behind this decision is that he wants to keep Punjab safe from Taliban retaliation, which would be inevitable in the event of a military operation. On the flip side, if there is any substance in the reports that the Pakistani army is not pleased with the government’s policy on the Taliban, one can expect a tense stand-off in civil-military relations if the talks were to break down and/or Sharif is seen as conceding too much.
Among the ‘liberal’ parties, the MQM has strongly opposed any concessions to the Taliban. This is partly due to ideological reasons and partly due reasons of self-preservation, given how the MQM bastion Karachi is constantly under attack. Simultaneously, the MQM is also taking efforts to get in the good books of the military, which it thinks is opposed to the talks.
Meanwhile, the PPP appears split over how far it should go in supporting or opposing the talks. The Party is making half-hearted efforts to recover lost political space by questioning the talks, but also fears coming out very strongly against the Taliban. While PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto has taken a strident anti-Taliban position (only on Twitter), the Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly, Khurshid Shah, has taken a more nuanced stand. The PPP is also bristling at not being kept in the loop by the government. The ANP made some noises against the talks, only to express faith in the talks in the next breath – but that is understandable, given how they’ve remained in the cross-hairs of the Taliban.
Parties of Minority Communities
The Shia and Barelvi parties are unequivocal in their opposition to the talks. They fear that any space conceded to the Taliban will produce an existential threat for them. The Jamaat-e-Islami has been in the forefront to justify Taliban actions and sees them as warriors against the ‘evil’ US. It is in favour of continuing the dialogue even if they fail and opposes any military operation against them. Their support is not entirely altruistic and the Jamaat sees political benefit in the form of greater clout and perhaps a chance to come to power. However, the Taliban will have little use for the Jamaat if they do come to power.
More interesting is the tussle between the two main Deobandi parties – the JUI-F and the JUI-S. For decades, the latter has been worsted in the political field by the former. In fact, Haq had been reduced to a bit player until the Taliban talks, in which he was nominated as the head of the ‘Taliban committee’ to liaison with the government. His old links with terrorism and the Taliban have catapulted straight to the political centre-stage. Resultantly, JUI-F chief Fazal-ur-Rehman is displeased; what is more, Rehman has for long been trying to promote his own peace talks through the tribal jirgas. But despite his having joined the coalition government, Nawaz Sharif hasn’t bought into Fazal’s formula for peace. As a result, Rehman, though not opposed to the dialogue, has expressed his doubts over the talks yielding any result. Perhaps he is waiting for an opportunity – a breakdown in the talks – to make his next move.
Nawaz Sharif is essentially walking on the razor’s edge and regardless of the outcome of the talks, he will face the brunt of the political fallout.