Imran Khan and PTI spokespersons repeatedly quote the example of the British talking to the IRA to resolve the Northern Ireland problem. The argument goes something like this, ‘the American puppet Pakistani government has tried military action against the Taliban for the last ten years instead of negotiating with them. We are fighting America’s war and have failed. Insurgencies can never be defeated by force. It has failed in every other situation. A government always has to talk nicely to insurgent groups to bring them to the table. Americans tried force and failed in Vietnam. The Northern Ireland troubles, which cost over five thousand lives, did not end until the British Government sat on the table to discuss peace terms with the IRA. Peace was achieved through talks and not through the barrel of a gun’. So says Mr. Khan with absolute authority and little concern for distorting history.
Let’s first look at the claim that ‘no insurgency has ever been resolved by force’. This is patently untrue. There are several examples of insurgencies being wiped out by a resolute and cohesive state. The most recent example is the obliteration by the Sri Lankan army of the once fearsome Tamil Tigers. In Italy the Red Brigade, which had virtually brought the Italian government to its knees, was controlled by effective police action. Similarly the Biafran insurgency in Nigeria, Baader Meinhof in Germany and the Malay Communist were forcefully dumped into the dustbin of history. The Saudi Al Queda were crushed by the ever so ruthless Saudi state. In all these cases, any attempt at resolution through talks, proved to be futile. The state purged determined armed enemies by the use of unrelenting coercive force.
PTI’s reference to Vietnam as an example of resolution through dialogue is disingenuous. To compare the Viet Cong’s struggle against colonial occupation and then the illegitimate division of the country with Taliban terrorism against the Pakistani state and people would be insulting to the Vietnamese. Also it’s simply not true. The temporary peace enforced by Kissinger through carpet-bombing the North failed. The Easter Offensive by the Viet Cong in 1974 succeeded in reuniting the nation. It can be argued that the conflict was eventually resolved not by dialogue but through the barrel of the gun.
And now let us look at Northern Ireland. Khan and PTI hold this as the prime example of how the might of once great empire fails against a small and committed local insurgency fighting for freedom. They perpetuate a myth that only when the British Government decided to talk nicely talk to the IRA did the conflict get resolved.
Here again the Irish Republicans would be deeply insulted by Khan comparing their cause with Taliban terrorism. The roots of the conflict stretched back many hundred years. There was a history of discrimination and impoverishment of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Much like the Vietnamese, the Catholics in the North, never accepted the division of a once united Ireland. The historical grievance that spurred IRA ran deep and one that had widespread support among the Catholics in Northern Ireland. A more pertinent comparison would be the Kashmiri insurgency rather than TTP terrorism.
But did the British Government hold talks with the IRA. They might have done so secretly, but publicly the Government resolutely maintained that IRA was terrorist organization and no dialogue could be held with them. This stance was consistently maintained and the British never held formal talks with the IRA.
Talks only took place with Sinn Féin in July 1997 after IRA accepted the British demand for an unequivocal ceasefire. When IRA reneged on the pledge of ceasefire by killing two people in Belfast, the Sinn Féin were excluded briefly from the talks. The republicans were brought to the table, not by sweet-talking them and calling them misguided brothers, but bringing upon unremitting pressure. The British knew that a sovereign nation cannot talk to belligerents by being nice and offering to talks. It only does so when surrendering in war. And yes, state coercion does mean some innocent bystanders get crushed along the way as happened in Northern Ireland. Such is the nature of statecraft.
If we are to follow the Irish example, which PTI insists we do, the government should unequivocally brand TTP as terrorists. It should follow this by conducting operations in FATA that heaps unbearable punishment on the Taliban and its cohorts. We ought to put our F16 and other bombers to some good use once in a while. After the brutal coercive might of the sovereign is nakedly demonstrated peace options should be explored.
Since PTI is the main advocate for TTP and refuses to condemn them as terrorists, they can formally act as the political wing of TTP along the IRA/Sinn Féin model. The government should ask PTI to ensure unequivocal ceasefire by TTP. If Khan succeeds in this, formal talks should be held with PTI. Mr Khan can thus play a more constructive role in bringing peace rather than playing fast and loose with historical facts – a trait he seems well accomplished at.