Pakistan wants to talk to its Taliban, but doesn't know what to say
Pakistanis favor comprehensive peace talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, but the process has been held back by disagreement over how to compromise.
Peshawar and Akora Khattak, Pakistan
Despite the Pakistani Talibanâs recent deadly attack on 10 foreign climbers, many Pakistanis still want to hold talks with the group to end a decade long conflict that has killed more than 50,000 people, mostly civilians.
Pakistan has a broad consensus in favor of talking to the Taliban.Â A May 2013 Pew survey found only 35 percent support using the military against the Taliban, and 64 percent saw the US as more of an enemy than a partner.Â Anecdotal evidence since the attack indicates thatâs still the view.
âBoth sides are interested in peace due to the reason that the government wants to improve its rating among people,â says Mansur Khan Mehsud, research director at the Fata Research Center.
But the question is: How?
Nawaz Sharif, Pakistanâs new prime minister, has repeatedly expressed his desire to sit down with the Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), but analysts say the hurdles are tremendous. Â It is highly unlikely that the TTP would ever recognize the current government as legitimate, or that the rest of Pakistan would accept the group's particular interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Others say ending the US alliance â a major demand from the TTP â is untenable.Â
The principle route for NATO supplies to Afghanistan goes through northwest Pakistan in the Khyber Agency. There, the TTP and Lashkar-e-Islam, an allied militant group, have been fighting the Pakistani Army for control since 2009.Â More than 370 people have been killed there this year, alone, and Pakistanis are tired of it.
Millions have been displaced by the conflict with the TTP in the past decade, and hundreds of thousands have fled to refugee camps scattered throughout the northwest to avoid it. Although the TTP supports the Afghan Taliban's insurgency next door, it has a separate leadership structure. And since 2008, it has focused its efforts on carving out territory for itself in northwest Pakistan, with the stated aim of replacing the Pakistani state with one enforcing their interpretation of sharia law.
Three months ago, Porughola, who goes by only one name, and 10 family members fled her home in Bara in the northwest of Pakistan in the Khyber Agency. Now she lives in the Jalozai refugee camp, situated about 21 miles southeast of Peshawar, along with more than 65,000 people from her area.
Porughola says her family left with ânothing but the clothes on our backs, no shoes on our feetâ after her home was destroyed. âWhen we fled,â she says, âwe didnât know who was shelling us, the Army, or the extremists.â A shell landed near them and injured her daughter. Refugees from Bara like Porughola have a long journey to Jalaozai, walking eight hours south to Hangu, then paying up to $100 for transportation to the refugee camp. She like many other refugees is glad the military is in Bara, but likes the idea of the government talking to the militants.
"I have no idea about any [extremist] movement ... I want peace, peace in our areas," she says.
Starting talks, little consensus
In December, the TTP offered a cease-fire if Pakistan altered its constitution to be âin line withâ sharia, ended its alliance with the US, and pulled its troops back from the tribal regions. In previous negotiations, the TTP has also demanded a general amnesty and the release of prisoners.
Despite statements from political parties promising talks, the TTP has continued attacksÂ against civilians,Â and the Pakistani military has continued operations in places like Khyber Agency. Meanwhile, the US continues to target the TTP with drone strikes (though the number has gone down in recent months), which the militant group says would be impossible without Pakistani support.
The TTP claimed responsibility for the killing of 10 foreign touristsÂ last week in the mountainous northern region of Gligit-Baltistan. Before that, the TTP had killed two lawmakers belonging to the Pakistan Tehrike-e-Insaaf (PTI), a party that openly called for talks with the group, and was thought to be immune to attacks because of its outspoken stance against the United States.Â
SomeÂ sayÂ ifÂ the TTPÂ was actually interested in talks, it would stop such attacks.
âThe TTP's target is the Pakistani state,â says Raza Rumi, who heads the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. âThis idea of talks should only happen once they give up arms and come to the negotiation table.â
Arbab Muhammad Tahir,Â ofÂ theÂ Awami National Party says the ANP continues to support peace talks, but only if militants âgive up terrorism and accept the writ of the government.â He adds:
âThere cannot be a state within a state.â
Some think it is possible to pursue talks, even if the conflict is ongoing.
âThere is a continuous effortÂ [toÂ hold peace talks],âÂ saysÂ Muhammad Asim Khan, a spokesman for the ruling PML-N.Â He says an investigation of the attacks in Gilgit-Baltistan will be carried out, and any individuals responsible will be prosecuted. âThey will be taken to task,â Mr. Khan says, âbut those who have accepted the writ of the government, we will talk with them.Â Our doors are always open.â
The US alliance
âPakistan can compromise, but not agree to all demands,â says. Mr. Mehsud. He says Pakistan cannot take provocative steps against the US like shooting down drones, or closing NATO supply routes because it depends on US aid, and full-fledged conflict with the US would prove disastrous.
But some peace talk supporters say the TTP draws support from Pakistanis who resent their country's involvement in the US âWar On Terror,â and talks wonât have any effect until Pakistan ends its alliance with the US.
â[If] this war keeps going on, [the TTP] wont stop,â says Sami ul Haq, an influential cleric who runs Dar-ul-uloom Haqqania, a seminary in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa whose alumni include several of the Afghan Taliban's leaders.
The anticipated 2014 US withdrawal from Afghanistan will have a significant impact on the TTP, says Mehsud. The TTP exploits grassroots resentment of the US presence in Afghanistan, arguing the Pakistani state, as an ally of the US, is also a legitimate target.
Others say getting the TTP to stop fighting wonât be as simple as ending the US alliance, even if that were possible.
âThere are apologists in Pakistan who say the Taliban are involved in terrorist activities because we are in league with the US âwar on terrorâ,â says Asad Munir, who headed Inter-Services Intelligence in the tribal regions until 2005. âThere is no confusion in the armed forces ... they have no doubt the Taliban are anti-Pakistan,â he says.
Even if the TTP's demands are untenable, some experts say simply getting them to the table might help stem violence in Pakistan.
âThe process itself is important,â says Amir Rana, who heads the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
âWhen [the TTP] make demands, the government will be prepared to understand their mindset,â he says.
[Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentifiedÂ Nawaz Sharif, Pakistanâs new prime minister. ]