Three months after taking office, Sharif scored a major victory last week when the country’s 12 major political parties endorsed talks with the Pakistani Taliban.
Within days, the insurgent group’s leaders said they had released three Pakistani security officials in exchange for six militants, to encourage the peace process. The army denied that the release was related to future talks, but many commentators suggested it could help facilitate negotiations.
Regardless, by Sunday, the peace effort was encountering problems — before it had ever really begun.
The Pakistani Taliban’s Supreme Council released demands for a cease-fire — to include the release of all its imprisoned militants and the withdrawal of the army from all tribal regions — that some government leaders called unrealistic.
Even more problematic, a two-star army general and two other military officials were killed later that day by a roadside bomb in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, near the border with Afghanistan. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing, which Sharif called “gutless.”
Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the insurgents, said attacks would continue.
“We have not yet accepted the government offer for talks, and we are at war, as there is no cease-fire,” he said in a phone interview.
On Monday, Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, warned that the country’s 520,000-member army would not be bullied.
“No one should have any misgivings that we would let the terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms,” Kayani said, adding the “army has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists.”
Former and current government officials have criticized Sharif for not yet laying out a clear vision of how the country should handle its more than 40 militant groups, many of them made up of Islamist extremists.
‘”Nobody is saying we can’t talk, but talking from a position of weakness is never the way forward,” said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States. “We can’t afford this Alice-in-Blunderland approach to crucial national security issues.”
The uneven start to Pakistan’s peace process comes just months after the Obama administration attempted to launch a dialogue between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Afghan Taliban leaders. In late June, a day before State Department officials planned to meet with Taliban representatives in Qatar, a Taliban rocket attack killed four U.S. service members in eastern Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Karzai became enraged that the Taliban had hoisted its banner over its temporary offices in Doha. The planned discussions fell through, although the Obama administration is hopeful they will occur at some point.