When Is Negotiating Bad for Democracy?

Pakistan's efforts to talk with the Taliban are threatening to undermine the country's recent democratic gains.


Is it possible to negotiate peace with terrorists who openly eschew democracy, rule through violence, and vow to eliminate anyone who doesn’t share their extreme beliefs? Or is a military response the only way to secure a sustainable peace and protect democratic values against such attacks? This essential dilemma is the subject of furious debate in Pakistan, where democrats are once again in an existential fight for the future of the country. But this time, they’re fighting with Taliban terrorists, not the army.

Despite the achievements of Pakistan’s decade-long march toward democracy, the start of so-called negotiations between the government and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has put those hopes in doubt. After years of struggle against military rule, parliament was finally able to rid the constitution of dictators’ distortions — but now, the Taliban have refused to accept its supremacy and declared democracy "un-Islamic." They are demanding, instead, that the constitution be replaced by their extreme interpretation of sharia as a condition for peace — a position they have backed up by threatening to deploy 500 female suicide attackers ready to die for the cause.

The TTP have already demonstrated what a Taliban-style government would look like. In 2009, they seized control of the Swat Valley and implemented a brutal regime of public beheadings, beating women, and school closings until the army, backed by parliament, conducted an operation to retake the territory and impose the writ of the state. Can negotiations resolve such profound differences with those who are committed to destroy democracy?

Peace talks quickly turn conflict into a public relations battle, where the two sides must fight to win hearts and minds of the public. With surprising speed, the Taliban seized control of the public agenda just days after talks began in early February. They were able to focus the debate on the country’s constitution — shifting attention away from over their own self-proclaimed acts of terror, in which they have killed and injured an estimated 50,000 innocent Pakistanis; blown up public markets, cinemas, and schools; and completely cut off the tribal areas from the rest of the country. Instead of demanding a ceasefire and an end to the horrific violence, the government has desperately tried to convince the Taliban that the constitution is founded on sharia as a way to appease and keep them at the table.

How did this happen? How were the Taliban able to define the negotiation narrative in their favor while continuing to blow up public places, attack journalists and polio immunization teams, and brazenly murder kidnapped members of the security forces?

To find the answer, we need to look back to 2013. That year began as one of the most promising in Pakistan’s history. A string of unprecedented transitions of power seemed to confirm that democracy had firmly taken root. The parliamentary elections saw an elected party complete its five-year mandate for the first time; it not only passed power peacefully to another party, but also announced its intention to act as a "constructive" opposition. The powerful chief of army, the feared head of Interservices Intelligence (ISI), and the hyper-active chief justice of the Supreme Court all retired at the end of their terms, and their successors took office without controversy. The stage was set for the country to unify behind a popular government and tackle the serious threat of terrorism.

Instead of capitalizing on these achievements, however, newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif retreated soon after the election into apparent hibernation, and did not once appear in parliament, and rarely in public, for the next year. During the preceding five years in opposition, Sharif had touted democracy and the supremacy of parliament as his defining mantra. Once elected, however, the reality was far different than the rhetoric. Besides his own unexplained absence from parliament, his government didn’t introduce any major legislation and offered no coherent policy on terrorism for almost a year. The media assailed the prime minister’s "dithering" and deemed his government "confused."

Imran Khan, meanwhile, head of the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, former cricket star and media darling in both Pakistan and the West, brashly blamed the Americans and drones for causing every Taliban suicide attack, explosion, and military ambush. Despite the fact that his party runs the government in Khyber Pakhtunkwa (the province where the Taliban strike most frequently), Khan, from the safety of his mansion on the outskirts of Islamabad hundreds of miles away, not only continued to act as though he were powerless to do anything about the attacks, but actually became a Taliban apologist, refusing to condemn their actions. When a teenage boy was killed trying to protect his fellow students during a suicide attack, no one from the PTI government attended his funeral. Last month, the PTI government blocked the launch of Taliban victim Malala Yousafzai’s book at a university in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

The reclusive Sharif and the bombastic Khan made for a (literally) deadly combination. As the Taliban continued their murderous attacks, Khan continued to intone John Lennon’s dictum that it was time "to give peace a chance." This was dubious, considering that none of the previous 11 peace accords with the Taliban have ever resulted in a lasting peace.

The established moderate opposition parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP), meanwhile, failed to grasp the significance of Khan’s mastery of the media. They’ve focused their protest efforts exclusively on parliament, where they staged token walkouts over the prime minister’s absence and demanded the government "take them into confidence" on the negotiations. They don’t appear to understand that the fight for hearts and minds has little to do with parliamentary rules of procedure, votes on motions, or yet more parliamentary committees.

While they were calling in vain for parliamentary debate on closed-door decisions made in the privacy of the prime minister’s house, Khan, who is also a member of parliament, was busy exploiting his photogenic good looks and celebrity status in TV studios, deftly using his simplistic message to tap popular fury at the Americans. The single loudest exception to Khan’s pro-Taliban narrative comes from the PPP’s 25-year-old chairman, Bilawal Bhutto, who has channeled his outrage into his Twitter account, where he blasts searing criticisms of what he perceives as the Khan-driven capitulation to the Taliban. While Asif Zardari — his father, former president of Pakistan, and party leader — has largely been silent, Bilawal has relentlessly tweeted a steady stream of indignation at how the government has surrendered to those who, many believe, assassinated his mother and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. While he doesn’t yet have Khan’s elected stature or omnipresence in the media, Bilawal’s tweets have captured some media attention and become a focal point for those who share his despair and anger about the negotiations.

By the time the prime minister was ready to announce a strategy, Khan had boxed him into a corner. He used the months of dithering to shape public opinion and, according to Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida, "mainstreamed extremism."

Despite the fact that most of his cabinet supports a military option, Sharif decided at the eleventh hour to announce that his government would pursue negotiations with the Taliban. He even used Khan’s "give peace a chance" slogan to justify his decision. The fear of Khan eroding his support base in Punjab drove Sharif to put politics ahead of policy considerations in a decision that gambles with the safety and security of all Pakistanis and will have far-reaching repercussions throughout the region.

Pakistan’s future is being negotiated by Taliban sympathizers representing the government on one side, and hardline extremists representing the Taliban on the other. According to PPP Senator Aitzaz Ahsan, the "Taliban are negotiating with the Taliban." The voice of mainstream, moderate Pakistanis has effectively been silenced, and elected officials kept in the dark.

The Taliban, however, may have already undermined their impressive PR success by their continued use of violence while talks were underway. (In the photo above, mourners bury the victims of a recent terrorist bus bombing in southwest Pakistan.) The murder of three police commandos in Karachi and the mass execution of 23 members of the Frontier Constabulary have put the future of the talks in question. The government committee, although sympathetic to the Taliban, announced that peace talks cannot proceed in such a context. Even Imran Khan was finally forced to condemn the blatant attack on the military, exposing the superficiality of his demand for talks with the extremists.

If talks somehow succeed, however, Sharif will be able to claim success. If they fail, the prime minister is betting that Khan’s appeal will diminish, thus giving him the political freedom to stage a military operation. What remains unclear, however, is the cost of a negotiated agreement and how much Sharif is willing to pay for it. No less than the future of democracy in Pakistan is at stake.

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