Pakistan leans toward talks with Taliban

October 16, 2011

Amid growing American frustration with Pakistan’s handling of Islamic militancy, the government here appears less willing than ever to challenge insurgent groups and is more inclined to make peace with them.

In a series of recent statements, Pakistani officials have rejected the notion of robust military action against insurgents based in its tribal belt and instead called for truces. At a recent summit, political leaders issued a resolution that did not condemn terrorism but said their policy is dialogue. The decree was widely viewed as having been rubber-stamped by the powerful military, whose top two figures briefed the conference.

The approach has puzzled U.S. officials and renewed debate in Pakistan about how to handle insurgents who have killed thousands in attacks nationwide.

Much remains unclear about the potential for peacemaking, including which militant groups would be included or willing. But some analysts say Pakistan has lost the resolve to battle homegrown insurgents who many here view as disgruntled brethren.

“Everyone went along with what the army wanted” at the recent political summit, said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on militancy in the northwest. “It became obvious that the military has no appetite for military operations.”

Many here express skepticism about talks, arguing that such efforts had failed in the past. But the idea is backed by Islamic parties and other political leaders.

In interviews, politicians and security officials said Pakistan views the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella insurgent group that is an offshoot of the Afghan movement, as splintered enough to be open to peace deals mediated through tribal elders or clerics. And the United States, they note, is supporting a similar approach in Afghanistan.

“If by giving a chance to peace, any terror is eliminated, it’s the best option,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik, a leading ruling party figure, said in an interview. He added that he had received armistice offers from militants: “They want to talk.”

Pakistan’s fragile civilian government regularly condemns terrorism, and the army has executed several operations in the country’s northwest, including against Pakistani Taliban factions in the Swat Valley and South Waziristan. The battles have scattered some militant leaders, leaving the organization weakened but still capable of carrying out deadly attacks. But there is little public enthusiasm for large-scale military action, which could displace millions of people.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is jockeying for inclusion in any Afghan political settlement, which security officials here believe will bring Afghan Taliban representatives into the government. The army therefore sees little incentive to antagonize Pakistan insurgents, who commingle with their Afghan counterparts, security analysts said.

‘A focus on peace’

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called last month’s political conference as tensions with the United States soared over American allegations of Pakistani state support for the Haqqani network, an Afghan group based in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. Participants, in a rare show of unity, unanimously rejected the U.S. claims and called for a “new direction and policy with a focus on peace and reconciliation” with “our own people in the tribal areas.”

Two days later, Gilani told local media that a parliamentary committee would monitor talks that could include all Taliban factions, including the Haqqani network, but warned that failure could prompt military action. Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, however, suggested otherwise to reporters, saying: “Military operation is not a solution to every problem. We’re done with those operations where we had to.”

An American official said the United States was unsure what to make of the resolution. “We’ll be watching, of course, and asking through military channels what the [Pakistanis] have in mind,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive relationship.

The United States has stepped up a campaign of drone strikes against the Haqqani network, targeting the group with several strikes in recent days.

Taliban reaction to the Pakistani overture has been wary. One top commander, Faqir Mohammed, was quoted by local media as saying he welcomed talks — but that they must lead to the establishment of Islamic law. Mohammed later denied willingness to talk.

“There have been contacts between the government and militants through indirect channels,” said a tribal elder from the Waziristan region. “Both sides are seeking guarantees before starting.”

A Pakistani intelligence official pointed to the recent defection of one Pakistani Taliban commander, Fazal Saeed Haqqani, as an argument for truces, which he said exploit insurgent infighting. Pakistan, the official said, “met Haqqani’s demands,” including by releasing some of Haqqani’s imprisoned relatives.

Others bemoan the idea of talks as surrender, though many critics remain enthusiastic about reconciliation in Afghanistan. Javed Ashraf Qazi, a senator and former intelligence chief, said the Afghan Taliban is fighting a foreign occupation, while the Pakistani Taliban seeks to create an Islamic caliphate.

“These are our own citizens who have revolted against the state . . . and therefore they should be subjected to the law,” Qazi said. “They have the blood of innocent people on their hands.”

Pakistan’s numerous past attempts at peacemaking with domestic insurgent groups provide ample reason for doubt. Some analysts say a 2006 deal in North Waziristan helped create a haven in the area, from which the Haqqani network and other fighters now operate freely.

The Pakistani army has maintained truces with a few factions, including one led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, whose North Waziristan-based forces attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan and are closely allied with the Haqqani network. Some analysts speculate that the army has struck other secret deals that it wants to avoid jeopardizing.

The military and the Taliban are “ happy nowadays because there are fewer attacks — on both sides,” Yousafzai said.

Special correspondent Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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