The Taliban’s response to the government’s offer of peace talks makes it unlikely the situation will be resolved any time soon.
A conference of Pakistan’s political parties last week called for talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main grouping of militants in the country. But with attacks continuing and the militants issuing demanding conditions for negotiations, the road to peace looks as long and tortuous as ever.
An umbrella faction for armed Islamist outfits but also criminals and mafia gangs, the TTP was created in 2007 and pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. In the years since, it has carried out hundreds of attacks, killing over 6,000 people.
The TTP initially hailed the initiative but on Sunday issued a series of tough conditions for participating in talks, including the release of any members held in Pakistani jails and the complete withdrawal of government forces from the tribal areas along the Afghan border that are its stronghold.
The same day, the militants carried out a series of attacks in the country’s restive northwest, killing seven soldiers and policemen dead, including a general commanding an army division.
TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the group had not been officially approached for talks by the government, and the war with the Pakistani authorities would continue unless the government announced a ceasefire.
After Sunday’s attacks, Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani released a statement affirming the Army’s support for talks that also cautioned the TTP against assuming this meant the military would cave in to its demands.
“While it is understandable to give peace a chance through the political process no-one should have any misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms,” Kayani said.
Peace deals reached with the TTP in the past, in limited geographical areas, have fallen apart quickly and the media has questioned whether a genuine, effective peace agreement is really possible. They have noted the difficulties apparent in trying to reconcile the government and Army’s firm commitment to maintaining Pakistan’s territorial integrity and Constitution with the Taliban’s desire for the imposition of shariah law, among other issues.
It is a dilemma which some say is fuelling division within the militant ranks as much as debate among the politicians and men in khaki.
“The attack on a senior military general is a sign that there are Taliban groups who don’t want to negotiate with the government,” said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, former information minister of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which has borne the brunt of TTP attacks.
The Pakistani Taliban are made up of a myriad of factions which have declared “holy war” on the government in Islamabad, which they accuse of kowtowing to Washington, India and religious minorities such as Shia Muslims.
Citing intelligence sources, Hussain said that while some Taliban groups support talks, notably those in Punjab which are vehemently anti-Indian and historically close to the military, others do not. The latter include the hardline group of Mullah Fazlullah, which took control of Swat valley in 2007 before being kicked out by a major Army operation two years later.
Hussain said Sunday’s attacks were “basically an effort to spoil the peace talks,” a view backed up by a senior Taliban commander, who said Fazlullah’s group were behind the blast that killed the general.
Journalist and analyst Rahimullah Yousufzai said there has been some contact with the TTP but nothing of substance has been achieved so far. “Lots of questions remain unanswered: how do you talk, where, how do you implement any agreement? Do you need to free prisoners?” he said.
Moreover, the support of the Army—still the most powerful institution in the country—for a talks process is not guaranteed to last indefinitely. Kayani will retire in November and the identity and inclinations of his successor are unknown.
Imran Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party currently in power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, said the authorities must use the traditional channel of tribal elders for the talks. “The government has no choice (but to negotiate), this is the only solution. In the past the Army did, but now the federal government should take responsibility,” he said.