Pakistan Government to Hold Conference on Taliban Talks

By Aamir Saeed   |   Aug. 13, 2013 at 9:26 PM
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 13 (UPI Next) --

Pakistan's new government will convene an all-parties conference this month to draw up a formal policy on proposed talks with the Taliban, after a decade of bloodshed from suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed at least 17,000 civilians.

"We are contacting heads of all political parties for the APC and we hope it will be held soon," Information and Broadcasting Minister Pervez Rashid told UPI Next, adding the government wants to resolve the issue of terrorism in consultation with all political parties.

Newly elected Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told Parliament shortly after winning the May 11 elections that his government was open to dialogue with the Taliban.

"If the Taliban offer us an option to have dialogue, we should take it seriously. Why can't we talk to the Taliban to make our country peaceful?" he said, addressing newly elected legislators May 20.

All of Pakistan's major parties -- including Tehrik-e-Insaf, the new opposition party led by former cricket star Imran Khan; the Pakistan Peoples Party, which lost the May 11 polls; and the secular Awami National Party -- have endorsed the proposed dialogue.

Their support is likely to help Sharif's PML-N push a unanimous resolution through Parliament approving the talks.

The resolution would mandate the government to convene talks with representatives of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella organization of Taliban fighters in Pakistan.

Sharif vowed during his campaign to restore peace after a decade of deadly attacks by the Taliban and several military offensives against them by opening formal dialogue.

The proposed talks are seen as posing a Herculean task for the government. Sharif's party has yet to draw up a formal strategy.

"We have yet to take all stakeholders on board regarding the issue," PML-N spokesman Asim Khan told UPI Next.

Khan said the party had so far only responded to the Taliban's call for dialogue, and contacted prominent leaders of religious parties Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Samiul Haq to aid the talks.

Rehman leads the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Haq leads a breakaway faction of that party called the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (S), both of which are Islamic parties.

"All stakeholders, including the Pakistan army, would be taken into confidence in the proposed all-parties' conference regarding peace talks with the Taliban," Khan said.

Haq and Rehman want Pakistan's military leaders to support the talks.

"I'm willing to play my part for the peace talks. But Nawaz Sharif's party should first take army on board as well," Haq told UPI.

Retired Brigadier Mahmood Shah, former secretary of security for the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, says Sharif has won a public mandate for dialogue with the Taliban and should go ahead with it.

"Pakistan has suffered a lot in the war on terror and the option of dialogue with the Taliban should be utilized to restore peace," Shah told UPI Next.

"The army wants politicians to take ownership of the war on terror and if they do so, the army will support them in the peace talks."

Any talks were likely to be several months away as the government was still bringing stakeholders on board, he said.

The Pakistan Peoples Party has given its support to the proposed peace talks. Noor Alam, a former PPP legislator, said that war was no solution.

"Peace talks should be initiated without any preconditions from both sides," he told UPI Next.

Shireen Mazari, a spokeswoman for the Tehrik-e-Insaf, said dialogue with the Taliban was "the only option to restore peace."

Pakistan had cordial relations with the Taliban when they ruled neighboring Afghanistan, until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and overthrew the regime.

The Taliban had been nurtured and trained by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency in the 1980s to fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It turned against Pakistan and resorted to terror and suicide attacks targeting government and security figures after the Pakistani army launched offensives against them in 2003 in the mountainous tribal areas straddling the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a prominent Taliban expert, based in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar, described the moves toward dialogue as "historic," although he expressed doubts on their prospects.

"It is also relatively significant at the moment to initiate negotiations with the Taliban as the U.S. administration of President Obama is planning to pull its troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next year," he told UPI Next.

The Taliban in Pakistan said in a February video message that they were willing to enter peace negotiations with the Pakistani government, but that they did not trust the Pakistani army, accusing it of breaking past peace agreements. They have since retracted their offer for dialogue, but government officials believe they can engage them if all political parties adopt a unanimous stance in favor of talks.

Pakistan has reached three written peace agreements with the Taliban in 2004, 2005 and 2008. Each agreement was broken, with the Taliban and the army accusing each other of being the violators.

Yusufzai attributes the collapse of the first two agreements to U.S. drone strikes -- one in the northwest border region of South Waziristan killed then-Taliban commander Nek Mohammad in June 2004, and the 2006 agreement was destroyed by another drone strike in the nearby tribal region of Bajaur on a religious seminary, which killed 83 children.

"The government should first review the past peace agreements to know why they failed, and then decide about the future strategy," Yusufzai told UPI Next.

"It is easy to broker peace deals. It's hard to implement them and keep them intact," he said, adding, "I doubt the success of the proposed talks."

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