Top media men figure in Islamabad’s Taliban peace talks

Pakistan is among those countries in the world where politicians have generally been considered unworthy of credibility

Mansoor Jafar
Mansoor Jafar
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Pakistan is among those countries in the world where politicians have generally been considered unworthy of credibility. Furthermore, military and civil bureaucrats failed to fill the vacuum created. Consequently, chosen senior journalists and columnists have been given short term or long term tasks of undertaking important political assignments to fill the credibility gap.

There is a long list of journalists, both men and women, who made their mark on the tough and delicate arenas of politics, diplomacy and bureaucracy inside the country and abroad. However, critics of such high flying journalists have always questioned their selection criteria, alleging that their rise was the result of lobbying and favoritism.

The role of Pakistani journalists in resolving controversial and sensitive issues has become an established part of the country’s history. This year, a noted journalist and TV anchor associated with the largest media group of Pakistan was chosen to become the interim chief minister of the largest province of Punjab. The same journalist also served, rather controversially, in the post of interim chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board.

A noted female editor of an English Daily from Islamabad shocked everybody when she was suddenly chosen to serve as Pakistani ambassador to Washington in the early 1990s by Nawaz Sharif. Many editors also served in the cabinets and diplomatic teams of the late General Ziaul Haq, ZA Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and also with the interim governments. Last year, a seasoned journalist and TV anchor, Talat Hussain, hit the headlines when he became the only journalist in country’s history to have refused to become minister in the interim cabinet of Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso. He cited the reasons of a clash of interests and the chances of tainting his integrity if he were to accept that job.

Talking about few big international tasks, I would recall the role undertaken by the Pakistani government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at the behest of Washington for negotiating peace between the emerging Taliban and their opponent groups in 1995. The then foreign minister, Sardar Assef Ahmad Ali, led a delegation of senior journalists to Afghanistan. Senior journalist from the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province, Rahimullah Yusufzai, was part of that delegation, though the negotiations could not produce the results desired by Washington.

Mr. Yusufzai, a Pakhtoon who has worked for noted international media organizations like the BBC, hit the headlines once again this week when his name was included in the four member negotiating team constituted by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for holding peace talks with Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Sharif’s government has finally moved to hold negotiations after delaying the option for the last eleven months. The PM has been ignoring the increasing calls to find a negotiated way out to end the decade long insurgency in the country that resulted from U.S.-pushed military operations against the tribal people to kill alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda members.

The sudden urgency for this obvious step after an unexplained delay was intriguing; since the negotiation team could have been constituted the very first day it assumed power. Probably, the escalating violence and condemnation of government’s apathy forced the prime minister to give up his stubbornness regarding the talks.

It appears that both the government and the Taliban are playing with their cards close to their chests

Mansoor Jafar

The four-member team from government side also consists of Irfan Siddiqi, a seasoned columnist appointed as the prime minister’s adviser last month with the status of federal minister. While he was still busy receiving congratulations on his lofty assignment, Irfan Siddiqi got another surprise when he was nominated for the government negotiated team.

The third member of team is Major [retired] Amer, who also served in the prime military intelligence agency ISI and his name came up in 1989 for his alleged role in the operation Midnight Jackals. The operation was part of the move to muster parliamentarians’ support for the no-confidence move against the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and she had formally complained, with Army Chief General Aslam Beg, against Major Amer and Brig. [retired] Imtiaz Ahmad.

Major Amer comes from a family of religious scholars. His father and elder brother are both noted scholars, while one of his relatives is a noted TV anchor in the country’s leading media group. Major Amer is believed to have connections with the TTP chief Molvi Fazlullah, and is expected to exercise some influence over Molvi Fazlulah who is considered quite an antagonist to Pakistan’s army following the military operation in his hometown Swat in 2007. The fourth member of official team is a seasoned bureaucrat Rustam Shah Mohmand who also served as Islamabad’s ambassador to Afghanistan.

Stumbling blocks

Strangely, the proposed peace negotiations hit snags before the process formally launched after the two main members of the five member negotiations team nominated by TTP refused to become part of it. Veteran cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman, whose party is an ally of PM Nawaz Sharif’s coalition government, formally announced the withdrawal of his associate Mufti Kifayatullah from the TTP team, saying his party was not taken into confidence or consulted before the prime minister nominated his team.

Besides, the cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan, also declared himself unavailable for TTP’s team, saying he would rather support the negotiations from outside. The three remaining members of TTP’s team include Maulana Samiul Haq, the veteran cleric considered a mentor of the Afghan Taliban since the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar had studied at his seminary.

Also included is Maulana Abdul Aziz, chief cleric of Lal Masjid (red mosque) Islamabad and the head of Jamia Hafsa, the adjoining seminary for female students which was destroyed after General [retired] Musharraf launched commandoes’ operation to end the five months stand-off between police and female students protesting against the razing of five ancient mosques in the city and mushroom growth of prostitution centers in the garb of massage parlors, CD shops renting porn to teenagers etc. The final member is the veteran leader of right wing Jamaat-e-Islami, Prof. Ibrahim Khan.

The answer to the million dollar question as to whether Pakistan could be able to restore peace will become clear in next few weeks. Uncertainty prevails over the much awaited talks process and it appears that both the government and the Taliban are playing with their cards close to their chests.


Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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