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Window Closes For Pakistani Peace Talks With Taliban

Supporters and local residents offer funeral prayers for provincial lawmaker Farid Khan, who was killed in an attack by Taliban gunmen, in Hangu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province on June 4.
Supporters and local residents offer funeral prayers for provincial lawmaker Farid Khan, who was killed in an attack by Taliban gunmen, in Hangu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province on June 4.
Pakistani politicians vying for a seat in parliament lured war-weary voters with promises of peace negotiations with one of the country's most-violent militant groups. But now that the elections are over, it appears the window of opportunity for talks has already closed.

A string of events essentially buried hopes of a negotiated peace between the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the government. And this, observers say, could compel the incoming government to abandon the promises they made to their constituents and settle instead for minimizing future TTP attacks.

The first blow to negotiation efforts came with the recent death of TTP deputy leader Wali-ur Rehman Mehsud. His killing in a U.S. drone attack on May 29 prompted the militant group to withdraw its offer to hold talks with the government through interlocutors.

Days later they suffered another setback through the assassination of newly elected provincial lawmaker Farid Khan, an independent candidate who recently joined ranks with the Pakistan Movement for Justice party (Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf, or PTI) of retired cricket star Imran Khan. The PTI heads a coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where Farid Khan was killed, and had campaigned in the run-up to the May 11 general elections for talks with the Taliban and had vowed to end U.S. drone strikes.

The final nail in the coffin appears to have come with the public retreat of Jamiat Ulam-e Islam leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who had actively pursued talks.

Jan Achakzai, a spokesman for Rehman, said the powerful Islamist leader backed away from his position after sensing that Pakistan's powerful military was against talking to the TTP because of its violent campaign against security forces and civilians.

"The federal government of Pakistan, major political parties, and the military all need to agree on creating conducive atmosphere for talks. Maulana Fazlur Rehman and our party Jamiat Ulama-e Islam see no role for themselves in the absence of a favorable environment for negotiations," Achakzai said.

Shattered Hopes

Islamabad-based security analyst General Talat Masood says the Islamist leader's retreat shows there is not a strong will for negotiations with a group that has vowed to enforce its worldview by force.

He says that many Pakistani politicians have mixed views on the TTP, with some seeing it as an existential threat that needs to be confronted and others downplaying it as an isolated, local problem.

The U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have spurred protests, and many parties promised an end to them.
The U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have spurred protests, and many parties promised an end to them.

The killing this week of PTI politician Farid Khan raised questions about how much the party's leaders truly understand the threat posed by the TTP. Shattering the idea that the PTI would be spared of any violence from the TTP, a local Taliban commander was arrested in connection with the killing.

Masood says that given that the PTI and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), whose head, Nawaz Sharif, was sworn in as prime minister on June 5 and will rule without a coalition, opposed military operations against the TTP during the election campaign, their new administrations in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are unlikely to back new offensives against the group's strongholds.

The two parties are also between a rock and a hard place because they risk alienating their supporters if they fail to live up to promises of reaching a negotiated settlement with the TTP.

"Pakistan's new government will have to think very hard [to figure out] exactly how they want to move forward with Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. Even, in the future, if there is any possibility of negotiations, they must lay down a framework in which they should be able to talk," Masood says.

'Agreements A Stalling Tactic'

Past efforts of negotiating with the Taliban have failed. Since 2004, Pakistani military and the civilian administrations in Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have talked to the Taliban. They signed agreements with the insurgents in the hope that they would accept government authority, end their violence, and distance themselves from Al-Qaeda.

But most agreements resulted in the insurgents being strengthened. The TTP, in particular, used the agreements to extend its control and establish its own political system. Its violation of the agreements spurred military operations. After being pushed out of its strongholds in the northwestern Swat Valley and the South Waziristan tribal district in 2009, the group vowed to carry on armed struggle in order to replace representative rule with an Islamic empire.

Former Brigadier General Mehmood Shah says that both the PML-N and the PTI have little experience in dealing with the Taliban. He says their leaders are mainly based in the eastern Punjab Province, away from the harsh realities of northwestern Pashtun regions where the Taliban still control pockets of territory.

Shah, a former security official, negotiated with the Taliban after their insurgency began in 2003. He says that the TTP never really accepted any of the agreements signed with them.

"In Swat, for example, the government accepted all their demands and only insisted that the Taliban fighters lay down their arms to return to a normal civilian life," Shah says. "The Taliban did not abide by this one condition, which ultimately led to the failure of the agreement."

Masood, the former military officer, says that new administrations cannot afford to appear weak by pursuing negotiations even after the Taliban renounced negotiations. He says that the new civilian rulers will need to wholeheartedly support military operations against the Taliban to be able to deliver on their promises to voters.

"All their plans for economic revival of the country -- promoting education, health, and energy -- will all be in jeopardy," Masood points out.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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