The talks were due to begin after a month of violence that is shocking even by Pakistan’s standards. According to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 241 Pakistani civilians were killed in terror incidents in the first month of 2014 alone, along with 86 security force personnel and 133 militants.
The SATP, a project of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, categorized 38 attacks during January as “major,” meaning that three or more people were killed in each. Many of the attacks were sectarian in nature.
Previous attempts to negotiate an end to the violent campaign of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and precursor groups have ended badly, worsening the security situation both in Pakistan’s tribal belt and across the border, where the militants’ Afghan allies continue to confront U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces 11 months before the mission is due to end.
Hoping he can succeed where his predecessors have repeatedly failed since 2004, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week announced a small committee to represent the government in exploratory talks.
The TTP then named its team of negotiators, although one of those it included, prominent opposition politician Imran Khan, has declined the invitation.
One of those named to the TTP team is Sami-ul Haq, a radical politician sometimes dubbed “father of the Taliban,” since he heads a madrassa where Mullah Omar and other senior Taliban figures studied.
Sami-ul Haq is also chairman of the Defense of Pakistan Council, a coalition of anti-American radical groups set up in 2011 to oppose the reopening of NATO supply lines from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
Another member of the TTP delegation is Maulana Abdul Aziz, a radical cleric who heads Islamabad’s notorious Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), a complex long affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Aziz was arrested after the 2007 standoff, charged with murder, abduction and illegal occupation of property, but was later acquitted of all charges.
Ahead of the talks scheduled to begin Tuesday he told Pakistani media he would represent the TTP in the discussions as long as the government shows sincerity in considering the TTP’s demands.
“And of course, the major demand is enforcement of shari’a in the country,” he added.
Other likely TTP demands include the release of imprisoned leaders, an end to military operations and withdrawal of the army from TTP strongholds in the north-west, and end to U.S. drone strikes against terror targets.
Those demands have remained largely unchanged over a number of years. Concessions offered by the government in the past have included troop pullbacks, pardons for wanted terrorists, and permission for the militants to impose shari’a in their areas.
‘Balloon will burst’
Some issues dear to the TTP resonate beyond the most extreme elements in Pakistani society. Anti-American sentiment and opposition to drone strikes run deep, and in an opinion poll conducted by the British Council early last year, only 28 percent of Pakistani respondents expressed support for a democratic form of government, compared to 38 percent favoring government under shari’a. (Another 31 percent chose military government.)
“There should be no doubt that this peace talks balloon will burst soon enough,” The Nation, a Lahore daily, said in an editorial Tuesday. “The only productive thing that may come out of this bizarre repeat episode is that it will silence those who claim ‘peace has never been given a chance.’
“Will the TTP accept the constitution? Will they halt their attacks on citizens and military personnel? It is highly unlikely. Instead, they will have demands of their own,” it said.
“The government will be asked to release TTP’s prisoners, call back the military, and stop all state activity against its members. There are simply too many red lines that cannot be crossed. It would be wise for [Sharif] to prepare for the real solution in the meanwhile, and not put too much time in something he knows cannot work.”
Sharif came to power last year promising to pursue talks with the TTP, but the plan hit a setback when TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike last November shortly before talks were due to begin. The government responded angrily, with Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar calling the killing of the terrorist “the murder of peace.”
Three months later, the initiative appears to be tentatively back on track. Sharif told parliament in a nationally televised speech last Wednesday that he “want[s] to give a peaceful solution one more chance.”
Critics say a major reason for Pakistan’s terror crisis is the fact its government and military have for decades tolerated – even nurtured – groups with violent agendas that suit its strategic purposes, particularly in India, disputed Kashmir and Afghanistan.
“The Pakistan military has neither the capacity nor the will to defeat militancy and the state will continue to see the rise of religious fundamentalism, sectarian violence and ethnic conflict,” writes Dhruv Katoch, director of the Center for Land Warfare Studies, a think tank in New Delhi.
“No change is possible unless systemic malaises in Pakistan’s polity are addressed. These would involve among others, dismantling the terror apparatus created by the state as part of what it calls its strategic assets, revamping the educational syllabus, rebuilding institutions and improving governance. A tall order indeed, in the present state of Pakistan.”