ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government entered into formal talks with Taliban insurgents Thursday, exchanging possible ground rules for how best to try to reach a negotiated peace agreement.
A four-member delegation appointed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met for several hours with three representatives of the Pakistani Taliban in what is considered a last-ditch attempt to avoid a major domestic conflict.
The Pakistani Taliban, formed when various militant groups coalesced in late 2007 and early 2008, has been waging a bloody insurgency aimed at imposing a harsh interpretation of Islamic law in overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. Under pressure domestically and abroad to curb the violence, Sharif has been pushing for months to get the Taliban to the bargaining table.
If an agreement is not reached soon, the normally cautious prime minister may be forced to order military action, perhaps as early as this spring or summer.
After the meeting, which was held at a government guesthouse in Islamabad, the two sides emerged and read a joint statement describing the gathering as “cordial.”
The government delegation, led by Pakistani journalist Irfan Siddiqui, told the Taliban delegation that it wants an immediate cease-fire and for the talks to remain within the framework of Pakistan’s constitution. The government also requested that the talks be limited to concerns in areas where the insurgency is strongest, most notably the resistive tribal areas near the country’s border with Afghanistan.
That request could be a precursor to government concessions allowing greater autonomy for the Taliban in areas such as North and South Waziristan while trying to avoid elevating the group’s influence in more populated areas.
The initial demands of the Taliban delegation, led by a prominent religious scholar, were largely procedural. It wanted clarification of whether the government’s negotiating team was empowered to make decisions. For the talks to succeed, the Taliban negotiators said, they also need access to Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief and the head of the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Although additional talks are expected in the coming days, analysts remain deeply pessimistic that Sharif can reach a meaningful peace treaty with the Taliban.
The Taliban, which includes numerous factions and commanders, is increasingly splintered. There were signs Wednesday of division even among members of the delegation.
Maulana Abdul Aziz, a Pakistani cleric, said he will not participate in the talks unless they include a robust discussion about imposing Sharia law in Pakistan. Sharia law refers to a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings and would create a moral code that would be enforced by Islamic courts.
Taliban leaders have “given us a mandate to talk on their demands and they have repeated time and time again, through their messages in the media, that imposing Sharia law was one of the most important demands,” Aziz said.
But Maulana Yousuf Shah, another member of the Taliban delegation, said it was premature to speculate on what Taliban leaders’ final demands will be.
Some Pakistani analysts and attorneys question how any serious talks can proceed, considering the Pakistan government’s outlawing of the Taliban in August 2008. The government would have to legally recognize the Taliban for any agreement to pass constitutional muster, they say.
Farhatullah Babar, a Pakistani senator, said he’s also skeptical that the government could negotiate a pact in which it cedes authority to the Taliban in tribal areas in exchange for the group ending attacks in urban centers such as Lahore and Karachi.
"The problem is not only these troubled areas, but it is militancy which is going on in the whole country,” Babar said. “The militants could say Karachi is also the restive region or for that matter Peshawar, and then what would the government do?"
Craig reported from Kabul. Haq Nawaz Khan and Aimir Iqbal in Islamabad contributed to this report.