Two suicide bombers rammed into the All Saints Church in the Kohati Gate area of Peshawar, Pakistan, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was on his way to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly session.
The debate this attack sparked in Pakistan’s media and political circles has clear indicators how successful the upcoming meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be in resuming peace talks.
When Pakistan’s political leadership is unsure how to deal with armed groups killing its own soldiers and citizens, would it respond to Indian concerns about the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, which has never carried out an attack inside Pakistan?
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz assumed power following a historic election in May 2013, the first-ever democratic transition in Pakistan.
Prior to the election, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella organisation of around 40 militant groups that has declared war on Pakistan, targetted the Pakistan People’s Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Awami National Party, who were part of the coalition in power from 2008 to 2013.
Since the TTP spared the PML-N, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, the Jamaat-e-Islami and invited them to meditate peace, it was hoped the TTP would slow down the campaign of violence after the election.
During his election campaign, Sharif had focused on the energy crisis, the economic mess and on relations with neighbours to appeal to the voters, deftly bypassing the elephant in the room.
Only when the TTP stepped up attacks on security forces and civilians, did reality sink in. Nawaz Sharif’s enthusiastic pronouncements for peace with India have already drowned in the sound of gunshots at the Line of Control that killed five Indian soldiers.
He could no long ignore the question of terrorism that could scuttle his grand plans before they even took off.
Nawaz Sharif instructed his Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to hammer out a counter-terrorism strategy and call an All Parties Conference to consult political stakeholders.
Democratic observers were disappointed with the resolution passed by the APC on September 9, because it failed to articulate the state’s resolve to uphold its Constitution, preserve the democratic system and protect its citizens.
Political parties overwhelmingly supported the option of talks over the use of force to curb militancy in Pakistan without even setting preconditions or outlining a framework for talks.
Two political parties have been the foremost advocate of talks with militants: PML-N and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf.
The charismatic leader of the PTI, Imran Khan, along with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, has largely shaped the narrative that extremist violence in Pakistan is the result of drone attacks in Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the US presence in Afghanistan.
Although Pakistan has suffered heavily due to militancy, this narrative has created utter confusion about militant groups in the minds of ordinary Pakistanis.
While trying to manage its sour relations with the US by allowing anti-US sentiments to flourish in Pakistan, foreign policy strategists have inadvertently strengthened a discourse that has been used by political interests and tremendously benefited the militants.
A part of this discourse is that militancy in Pakistan has been caused by drone attacks which are killing innocent Pakistanis when, in reality, a large majority of those killed are militant operatives carrying out attacks against North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s targets in Afghanistan.
In Pakistani minds, how could a jihadi that is fighting the US in Afghanistan, be a bad guy? In the absence of a counter-narrative that explains the TTP’s vicious agenda, it is hard for the public to differentiate the TTP from the breed of militants that fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and later infiltrated into Indian-administered Kashmir ostensibly to support Kashmiris’ struggle for rights, a cause very close to the heart of most Pakistanis.
It is, thus, not surprising that any attack of the TTP within Pakistan evokes strong public sentiment, and is quickly drowned by conspiracy theories of foreign involvement.
With such a favourable offer of talks for the TTP on the table, it was shocking when Major General Sanaullah, Lieutenant Colonel Tauseef and Lance Naik Irfan Sattar were killed in an improvised explosive device attack in Upper Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa hardly a week after the APC.
The TTP not only claimed responsibility immediately, it said it would never let go of such an opportunity to attack the Pakistan Army. It also demanded that the government release some 4,000 militants imprisoned in Pakistani jails to prove its sincerity. The military was incensed, but the politicians’ response was muted, indicating that they still wanted to pursue talks.
Eighty five people lost their lives in the daring attack on the Christian community at a time when the government was preparing to open negotiations with the TTP as per the resolution of the APC.
Imran Khan’s PTI, which is ruling Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has been caught off guard. The TTP denied involvement, giving the conspiracy mongers and Taliban apologists enough grist to posit that a third force carried out this attack to sabotage negotiations. The public was ready to believe it.
The media, however, asked tough questions.
The attack has sparked a vigorous debate on whether there could be talks with a force whose agenda runs counter to the dream of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who said, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or, to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed -- that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”
Both the PML-N and PTI, whose officials first trotted out the sabotage theory to cover embarrassment, have been forced to face stark reality -- that talks alone cannot placate the TTP.
An editorial in the Dawn notes,"The leadership of the two parties have begun to mumble, however softly, about who can be talked to and on what terms. Tragic as it may be that it has taken the death of a general and scores of Christians for the country’s frontline political leadership to understand that the state cannot and must not negotiate without a clear sense of what can and cannot be negotiated on..."
In these circumstances, what hope does India have to get its concerns about militant organisations in Pakistan addressed? The two prime ministers would have a photo op to reaffirm their commitment to peace in the subcontinent.
But Indian public opinion is perhaps not ready to appreciate the internal struggle going on in Pakistan on the question of militancy. Can the Indians trust Pakistan’s political leadership to finally contain this Frankenstein’s monster?
If the recent incidents of LoC fire are any guide, certainly not. India-Pakistan relations are likely to remain tense until Pakistan overcomes militancy within.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Washington.
Image: Activists shout anti-government slogans as they protest against a twin suicide bomb attack on a church in Peshawar ' Photograph: Mohsin Raza /Reuters