Pakistani government to open preliminary talks with the Pakistani Taliban


Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, right, with central commander Azam Tariq, said in a phone interview, “We have not yet put forward any conditions or demands for the talks.” (European Pressphoto Agency)

In its most ambitious step yet to address Pakistan’s most potent domestic threat, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government plans to hold preliminary talks Tuesday with representatives of the Pakistani Taliban.

The meeting is described as an introductory chat with the Islamist militant group, which is responsible for a decade-long insurgency that has claimed more than 45,000 lives. If the talks are unsuccessful, Sharif has signaled that he might order a military offensive to regain control of tribal areas that are effectively under Taliban control.

Representatives from both camps confirmed Tuesday’s meeting. But many analysts doubt that a peace deal can be reached, citing the insurgent group’s violent history, decentralized command structure and harsh ideology.

Some Pakistani Taliban officials have circulated 10 demands they want to pursue in the talks, including a ban on women appearing in public in jeans or without head scarves, the release of all Taliban prisoners, immunity for the group’s commanders, the establishment of Islamic courts, a complete withdrawal of the Pakistan army from tribal areas and compensation for the victims of U.S. drone strikes.

The list has shocked Pakistan’s political and cultural elite.

“If this is true, it will not be acceptable to very many people in Pakistan,” Khalid Naeem Lodhi, a former Pakistan army general, said of the demands.

The Taliban is increasingly splintered, and the group’s chief spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said any information about demands is premature.

“We have not yet put forward any conditions or demands for the talks,” Shahid said in a phone interview. “If there is a list of demands in the media, that is not ours but may be someone else’s.”

Sharif, who returned as prime minister in June after two previous terms in the 1990s, has made a negotiated settlement with the Pakistani Taliban a chief priority.

The Pakistani Taliban formed in 2008 in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. It claims to be independent of the Afghan Taliban, but the two groups are thought to coordinate activities. Both organizations seek to replace their respective governments.

Although Pakistan’s major political parties gave Sharif broad support last summer to engage in talks, the prime minister has struggled to persuade Taliban representatives to participate.

 Over the past four months, the Taliban has asserted responsibility for a series of attacks that have killed hundreds of people. Last month, 20 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing in North Waziristan. The military responded with airstrikes that killed 40 militants and foreign fighters and caused thousands of residents to flee their homes.

Many analysts saw the bombardment as a sign that Sharif and Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, were preparing to launch a major offensive. Instead, Sharif announced last week that he was appointing a four-member delegation to make a final push at peace talks.

This time, Taliban leaders have appeared more receptive. They have appointed three representatives for the talks, including Maulana Sami ul-Haq, a top religious leader.

Analysts caution, however, that Sharif’s government may not have much leeway to bargain with the Taliban. Although Pakistan’s constitution is rooted in Islamic principles and law, it also includes provisions guaranteeing the rights of women and minorities. 

Efforts to ban women from wearing jeans in public would probably run afoul of those principles, said Khalil ur-Rehman Khan, a former Supreme Court justice. 

Although women in rural areas rarely wear jeans, it’s becoming more common to see young women wear them in urban settings.

“Under Islam, you have to dress in a way that is not profane, or abusive, but that choice is given, and it’s based on how society accepts you,” Khan said. “And the culture of society changes with the passage of time, more education.”

Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based defense analyst, said Sharif would run into resistance from military leaders if he agreed to any release of prisoners. Many military leaders are still angered that Taliban commanders freed under previous peace initiatives have returned to the battlefield, he said.

“There have been several peace deals with the Taliban, and none of them have worked, and I don’t think things have diametrically changed,” Hussain said.

Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar and Aimar Iqbal in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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