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Latest Pakistani Hopes For Peace Talks With Taliban Could Be Short-Lived

A child and an army soldier investigate the site of an attack with an improvised explosive device in Manglawar, in Pakistan's Swat Valley, in April.
A child and an army soldier investigate the site of an attack with an improvised explosive device in Manglawar, in Pakistan's Swat Valley, in April.
On September 9, political parties at a government-sponsored All Parties Conference (APC) in Pakistan agreed on dialogue with militants as the first option to address ongoing terrorism in the country.

The daylong meeting was attended and briefed by, among others, Pakistan's two most powerful men: Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and the director-general of the country's prime intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Zaheer-ul-Islam.

The government's offer of talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) amid increasing incidents of terrorism was regarded by many as a goodwill gesture and was widely welcomed in Pakistan.

However, any high hopes suffered a serious blow when two senior army officers were killed in a roadside bomb attack in an area near the Afghan border on September 15 and the claim of responsibility instantly came from the TTP.

In a resulting fit of anger, it was the army chief who came out with a blunt warning, saying that "terrorists would not be allowed to take advantage of the military's support to the political process."

Since then, potential peace negotiations with the Taliban have become the topic of heated debate in the Pakistani print and electronic media, with some key questions being raised about the proposed process:

a. Among the 62 proscribed militant outfits, which should be chosen for such talks?
b. Would the Taliban surrender their arms and accept state authority?
c. Would militants agree to end their jihadist activities inside Pakistan and across the border into Afghanistan?
d. Would the Waziristan-based militants agree to cut ties with international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)?
e. And would they accept the Pakistani Constitution by ending their armed struggle for the implementation of a Shari'a-based system.

Many Pakistani analysts suggest that if the answer to any of these questions is a clear "no," then the last option left to the Pakistani government is the use of force rather than any futile attempt at talks.

Commenting on the government's olive branch to the Taliban and the latter's killing of two senior army officers, the leading English-language daily "Express Tribune" asked:

"How many more of the upper echelons of the military are we to see murdered before the state makes a robust response? Time to walk the walk Mr prime minister, if you can because the time for merely talking the talk is over."

Another English daily newspaper, "Dawn," in an editorial on September 16 questioned the Pakistan army's policy toward the Taliban and warned that before hoping to achieve lasting peace, the military establishment needed to do away with its allegedly duplicitous policies of "good" and "bad" Taliban:

"Has the army leadership publicly distanced itself from groups like the Difa-e-Pakistan Council and sundry right-wingers running around the country trying to stir up trouble?"

In an op-ed piece in "Dawn," retired police officer Tariq Khosa asked the government and the military leadership to work together to counter the Taliban threat:

"If the political leadership and the military establishment want to be on the same page regarding the post-APC developments, they will have to come up with a purposeful and well-planned response to the offensive launched by the TTP and its affiliates despite the offer of talks and the unanimous political will to give peace a chance."

In his op-ed piece for the "Daily Times" on September 19, columnist Muhammad Taqi argued that "without setting the parameters for what exactly is the state willing to concede to the TTP in exchange for peace, the prime minister and his APC have left the door wide open for the terrorists to keep making highly perverse demands."

Since 2001, the government of Pakistan has signed various peace agreements with militants in different parts of northern Pakistan. But critics complain that each agreement has ended up further strengthening the Taliban and eroding people's trust in writ of the state.

Elaborating on the same point in an op-ed piece for "The News International" on September 19, columnist Kamila Hayat said that "each new cease-fire called over the years appears to have given the militants time to re-group, strengthen their ranks and welcome back freed fighters."

Following the killing of the two army officers in the September 15 bomb attack claimed by the TTP, some leading columnists asked for an across-the-board action against the militants. That came against the backdrop of years in which the Pakistani army has been accused of using certain jihadist groups as "strategic assets" in Afghanistan and India.

Columnist Kamran Shafi, in an op-ed piece for the "Express Tribune" on September 20, wrote:

"The question is: have our strategists finally decided that there are no ‘good' Taliban; that all of the many factions are joined at the hip, be they the Mehsuds or the Haqqanis or the Fazlullahs or the Punjabis or whatever's? That all of them ultimately pay allegiance to Mullah Omar, that al Qaeda is the Mother of All Umbrellas and that strategic depth in Afghanistan is dead as a dodo? And, finally, that though most difficult it will be, North Waziristan must be cleansed come hell or high water?"

Conservative Urdu-language media also expressed anger over the Taliban attacks and advised the government not to hesitate to employ force if the first option (talks) was not going to bear positive results.

The "Daily Express," in an editorial on September 19, wrote that "the government peace talks offer to the Taliban was a golden chance which they [Taliban] wasted following their attack on the army officers in Dir Upper of northern Pakistan."

Writing in another Urdu-language newspaper, "Daily Jang," columnist Irfan Siddiqi said the killing of army officers and the instant claim of responsibility by the Taliban have shattered hopes for peace talks. Though still supporting a midpoint between the use of force and negotiations, Irfan Siddiqi said the Taliban claim that it killed the army officers on September 15 has provided a golden opportunity to those who support the use of force in order to crush the Taliban insurgency.

-- Daud Khattak