Thursday, 27 February 2014

Pakistan and the Taliban: To fight or not to fight

Nguồn tin:

PAKISTAN’S prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has long been caught between hawks demanding a decisive military confrontation with the Pakistani Taliban and doves adamant the militants can be talked into abandoning their bloody campaign against the government. Four weeks after Mr Sharif announced that he wanted to give peace talks another chance, he appears to have settled for a little of each.

The country's army, and many civilian critics, say that, with almost 500 people killed since September, Pakistan's domestic terrorism is out of hand, and that he must take a hard line. The prime minister's hopes of reviving the economy with the help of foreign investment will also be jeopardised by continued violence, they warn. And yet Mr Sharif and many members of his party fear confrontation will trigger horrific retaliation in their political heartland of Punjab, the rich, populous province so far relatively unscathed by militant attacks. They may be right.

Since February 20th the Pakistani Army has been bombing from the air what it claims are militant “hideouts” in the tribal areas of the country's restive north-west. On February 25th alone they claimed to have killed 30 terrorists in North and South Waziristan. At the same time the government clings to the forlorn hope that stalled negotiations with Taliban intermediaries could yet spark into life. On Monday the interior minister even suggested the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the country's largest terrorist group calls itself, might like to participate in a cricket match to foster peace. (A TTP spokesman demurred, saying they did not approve of the game.)

Making matters trickier, Mr Sharif's main political threat in Punjab, Imran Khan, a popular former cricketer, is an unbending opponent of military action, claiming peace can be found simply by Pakistan distancing itself from the “US war” in the region.

Last month Mr Sharif appointed four go-betweens to act as negotiators with three extremist clerics invited to represent the TTP. The two sides held some meetings but stumbled, as critics had predicted, from the very beginning. The TTP, a movement committed to turning Pakistan into a strict Islamic state, balked at government demands that they negotiate within the framework of a constitution they regard as insufficiently divine. And on February 17th a faction of the TTP announced in a grisly video that it had executed 23 kidnapped Frontier Corps soldiers. Mr Sharif was unable to restrain the military in the face of such savagery (and the killing soon after of a senior officer in Peshawar), giving the generals permission to unleash air strikes. He may be tempted to continue indefinitely with the compromise, while shying away from the ground operation that would be required to obliterate the TTP's safe havens. But the mood is shifting.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst, expects a full ground invasion of North Waziristan by April. He says Pakistani military leaders fear the TTP will be greatly strengthened in the wake of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, which they predict will give the group’s Afghan Taliban allies greater control of the east of the country. It is a prophecy even more likely to be realised if there were a complete American withdrawal this year. On February 25th Barack Obama warned his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, that is exactly what could happen if Mr Karzai still refuses to sign a long-term security agreement. Mr Rizvi says that Pakistan’s civilian government will not be able to stand in the way of an army determined to seize back North Waziristan. “They know better than to be on the wrong side of the army,” he says.

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