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Siege of Peshawar

Consider the current situation in Pakistan. The Taliban are closing in on Peshawar. The capital of NWFP, according to news reports, gradually resembles a city under siege. Pakistan army personnel have placed sandbags on the streets as soldiers patrol the city. The Taliban have penetrated the city in huge numbers. Their writ runs reportedly in several areas. They have even carried out executions with impunity of those they consider pro-American. On Saturday, the Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani said his government preferred dialogue to the use of force but the writ of the state would be maintained at all costs. He told reporters at Peshawar airport that the elements disturbing law and order in the tribal areas would be dealt with an “iron hand”. But he added that the use of force would be the last option. The government preferred dialogue to end militancy in the region. He offered talks only to those militants who would lay down their weapons. He backed the provincial government party ruling NWFP, led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s grandson, and endorsed its peace initiative. “We will abide by the peace agreements that the provincial government has signed with the militants,” he said. But this carrot was accompanied by the stick of a warning given for the first time by the new Gilani government. In limited action security forces, not the army, started shelling territory controlled by militants outside Peshawar. However, as yet it is mere sparring. The door to negotiations remains open. Taliban warlord Baitullah Mehsud suspended peace talks. He threatened to fight the government in both Sindh and Punjab unless military action was called off. He too did not slam shut the door permanently. He dismissed fears that the Taliban wanted to overrun Peshawar. He was quoted as saying: “Peshawar isn’t Srinagar that we want to capture it. Taliban cannot think of damaging their beloved Peshawar, which is the capital and identity of our (NWFP) province.” All this smacks of posturing by both sides before substantive talks begin. If peace talks do resume, what concrete proposals could the Pakistan government offer to the Taliban in place of vague assurances trotted out so far? Mehsud’s statement provides the key. His pride expressed in the identity of his beloved Pakhtunwa province is significant. His reference to Srinagar while speaking about Peshawar is equally significant. He differentiated Srinagar from Peshawar. Quite subtly, was he not equating NWFP with Kashmir? The Musharraf government had accused Mehsud of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Mehsud flatly denied it. This scribe had accepted Mehsud’s denial then. He accepts it even now. Benazir was talking about decentralization and federalism in entire South Asia on the EU model. That tallied with the demand for more autonomy to Baluchistan and NWFP. The soft international borders implicit in the EU arrangement would allow free intermingling of people in all South Asian countries, including of course the common Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without changing maps. This arrangement would be a nightmare for Al Qaida which dreams of an international Islamist state that would include Afghanistan, NWFP and Kashmir beside other areas. Undoubtedly the strongest motive to eliminate Benazir lay with Al Qaida. In all this what role can India play? Srinagar continues to simmer and to defy stability. The current agitation over land ceded to the Amarnath Shrine may be electorally inspired and may abate. But the ease with which protesting crowds can be mobilized is symptomatic. For whatever reason, the Valley remains alienated. And whether we like it or not Kashmir is very much part of the South Asian problem. With imagination, it can be made the core of the South Asian solution. Last weekend the leader of Pakistan’s ruling PPP Asif Zardari, in a written message to a London seminar organized by Tehelka weekly, rubbished Musharraf’s claim that no terrorist camps operating against India existed in Pakistan. Acknowledging their presence he stated: “These camps should be dismissed so that the militants do not hold the foreign policies of India and Pakistan to ransom.” He also proposed the appointment of a commission to settle the Kashmir problem that would comprise representatives of India, Pakistan and Kashmir. This commission, he said, could address “foreign policy and defence policy” concerns of the region. Ends.