Arguably the most fundamental role of a modern state is to protect the life and well-being of its citizenry. Over their nation's short history, Pakistanis have spent huge resources on developing their military -magnitudes more than on healthcare and education - under the pretense that it was a painful but necessary cost to maintain their basic safety. This attitude was famously encapsulated by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's remark that Pakistan would "eat grass....even go hungry" in its quest to achieve nuclear parity with India. As denizens of a developing country, Pakistanis could ill-afford such endeavours but largely accepted it as the price for keeping themselves and their loved ones safe in a dangerous world. They would make do with less, but in turn the state would uphold the basic social contract to protect them from harm and provide a semblance justice.
Sadly however, recent events suggest that even this most simple of social compacts has been utterly betrayed.
Since 2002, nearly 50,000 Pakistani citizens from all walks of life have been wantonly murdered by terrorist groups operating in the country. They have been killed in marketplaces, mosques, shrines, in government buildings and while traveling on public buses. This past week, somewhat incredibly, the Pakistani government commenced a round of "peace talks" with the terrorist organization believed to be responsible for the majority of these attacks, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). That the TTP does not even accept the legitimacy of Pakistan's existence has only added to the bizarre nature of this spectacle. Even worse, it appears as though they - for all intents and purposes a gang of criminals based in the sparsely populated and lawless periphery of the country - are the ones dictating terms to the government.
Rejecting even the idea of holding talks within the framework of Pakistan's constitution, TTP intermediary Maulana Abdul Aziz announced "I won't participate in talks until they include a clause about the imposition of Islamic law", while the organization's spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told the BBC: "The war we are fighting is for enforcement of the Sharia....holding talks with the government [will be] for the same objective." In other words, both the precondition and purpose of these talks from the Taliban perspective is that Pakistan should dissolve itself and transform into a caliphate under their direction. As much as this makes a mockery of the very idea of "negotiations", such brazen demands are in many ways the natural by-product of a government which has for years refused to take seriously a terrorist group defying its authority and murdering its citizens. One could imagine how strange history would look if after the 9/11 attacks the United States announced its response would be to enter into peace talks with Al Qaeda.
To be fair, not all advocates for talks are Taliban-sympathizers and efforts to caricature them are often deeply misguided. Most Pakistanis understandably want an end to the national nightmare which they have endured for the past decade, and on the surface talks seem to offer the fastest possible route to such an outcome. Furthermore, the argument that Pakistan's destabilization and the TTP's terrorist violence have been by-products of America's deeply unpopular war in Afghanistan also contains a considerable degree truth. Suicide bombings for example, now a terrifying regularity, were essentially unheard of in Pakistan before American bombs began raining down upon their Afghan neighbors and the Pakistani military partially mobilized against the Taliban under Pervez Musharraf's rule. As the line of argument goes, Pakistan has been fighting America's war and the TTP's reprisals have merely been a quid pro quo for this unprovoked assault.
However even if it is granted that the Pakistani government a decade ago provoked the present conflict with the Taliban, that does not erase the record of what has happened since, nor materially alter circumstances as they exist today. The simple fact is that TTP has not been fighting a resistance movement in North Waziristan, it has been killing innocent civilians throughout the country on ideological grounds completely divorced from politics. The acts of mass murder it has perpetrated against Sufis, Shias, Ahmadis, Christians and other citizens of Pakistan have taken place far from any battlefield and have been perpetrated against people who committed no crime against them.
They have broadcast gruesome videos of executions and demanded that the entire country submit to their writ. Their intention to subjugate all of Pakistan has been clear and uncompromising, never mind that the tribal areas where they today hold sway account for less than 0.01% of Pakistan's total population.
Simply put, there is no war over territory being fought here and there is no just or defensible position the Taliban can claim in its fight. It would be an incredible injustice to the tens of thousands who have been killed in terrorist attacks over the past decade to simply treat their deaths 'water under the bridge' on the path to peace with their murderers. The TTP is not a legitimate or representative party within Pakistan's national politics and they do not even pretend otherwise. They can claim no electoral or legal mandate, nor can they claim popular legitimacy within the country. Yet, incredibly, the government is negotiating with them as equals and thus granting them such legitimacy de facto.
Such a spectacle is unacceptable for a national government. The TTP and their affiliates have conducted massacres at the country's most cherished religious sites, systematically targeted minorities, and even stooped to shooting a teenage girl who had spoken out against them. That Pakistan - armed to the teeth as it is thanks to decades of lavish military spending - can only do as much as negotiate terms with such criminals is deeply distressing. Doing so does profound disservice to the memory of all those innocents who have been murdered in the past years, but is also a black mark against the state for being either unwilling or unable to provide the most basic form of justice for its citizens. In any rational scenario the only 'precondition' for talks would be the TTP's completely disbandment and surrender. Instead, in a bizarre and unconscionable inversion of reality, they appear to be the party dictating terms to the state.
Despite all this, perhaps the greatest folly of all is the belief that negotiations can actually lead to a durable and lasting peace with the Taliban. Past agreements have quickly collapsed due to the organization's military expansionism and desire to expand their writ all over Pakistan; something they make no secret of even today. The present round of peace talks is simply another attempt by the state to deny reality and forestall the inevitable confrontation with the Frankenstein-monster of extremism they themselves have helped to create. The Pakistani government owes it to its citizens - who for decades have endured economic deprivation for the promise that they might at least be safe - to do better than chalk out terms of accommodation with their tormentors.