NEW YORK/ISLAMABAD, FEB 4 (MAMOSA Report) — A preliminary meeting between the Pakistani Taliban and the Nawaz government gets under way in Islamabad on Tuesday after months of violence.
Negotiators nominated by the government and the Taliban are due to chart a “roadmap” for dialogue at their first meeting.
All eyes are set on the outcome, with many hoping that it becomes the harbinger of meaningful dialogues in the coming days for lasting peace in the country. But many analysts doubt that a peace deal can be reached, citing the insurgent group’s violent history, decentralized command structure and harsh ideology.
Washington Post has called it “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s most ambitious step yet to address Pakistan’s most potent domestic threat” as senior civilian and military officials have repeatedly said militants cannot “coerce” Islamabad into accepting their terms in the government-initiated peace process.
While announcing their 10-member negotiating committee led by Commander Qari Shakil for the dialogue, the Pakistani Taliban said they wanted four well-known politicians including ex-cricketer Imran Khan to represent them in talks with the government team. Some reports say the TTP wants these politicians to be members of an arbitration committee to referee the peace talks.
However, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan said he will not be part of a team representing the Taliban in the peace talks. He said the Islamist militant group should choose “its own people” as representatives.
His party, PTI also made it clear that senior party figure Rustam Shah Mohmand was already on the government team and could represent the PTI at the talks.
In addition to Imran Khan the Taliban also named several hardline religious figures including Maulana Sami ul-Haq – known as the “Father of the Taliban” – on its team.
Others on the Taliban team include the chief cleric of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, and two top religious party leaders – Mufti Kifayatullah of JUI-F and Prof Ibrahim Khan of Jamaat-e-Islami.
While Khan said no, the three right-leaning politicians, indicated on local television they might speak for the militant group. Latest news is that JUI-F’s central leader Mufti Kifayatulllah would not take up the role.
Maulana Samiul Haq and two other members of the TTP-nominated committee, Professor Mohammad Ebrahim and Maulana Abdul Aziz, held a meeting in Islamabad on Monday.
Meanwhile, TTP on Monday said two more names are likely to be finalized soon for its committee tasked to hold talks with the four-member government-appointed panel.
The names of senior journalist Orya Maqbool Jan and investigation journalist, Ansar Abbasi are being reviewed for nomination, TTP spokesman Shahidullah told media.
But Abbasi has clarified that if the Taliban and government accept an impartial committee, he could join the same.
Apparently buoyed by developments, Prime Minister Sharif said on Monday, “Things are moving forward satisfactorily. Committees have been nominated and we are hopeful the process will gain momentum.”
Last week Sharif had addressed the parliament and surprised many by saying, “I am sure the whole nation would be behind the government if and when we launch a military operation against the terrorists, but I want to give peace a final chance.”
If the talks are not successful, Nawaz Sharif has signaled that he may order a military offensive to regain control of tribal areas that are effectively under Taliban control. The civil-military leaders are on the “same page”, Sharif told lawmakers.
Sharif, who was elected in May after pledging to reach out to insurgents, has been under pressure from U.S. officials to crack down on militants and has faced withering criticism at home for appearing powerless in the face of continuing militant attacks.
His announcement of a commission made up of two veteran journalists – Irfan Siddiqui who is Nawaz’s adviser on national affairs and Rahimullah Yusufzai; the former ambassador to Afghanistan Rustam Shah and a retired ISI Majore Amir Shah has been generally welcomed.
While raising no objection to Sharif’s choices for the negotiating team, the Pakistani Taliban responded by announcing their own 10-member team for the dialogue process including a five-member “arbitration committee” to oversee the process consisting of the right-wing Pakistani politicians.
According to latest report in US newspapers, some Pakistani Taliban officials have circulated 10 demands they want to pursue in the talks, including a ban on women appearing in public in jeans or without headscarves, the release of all Taliban prisoners, immunity for the group’s commanders, establishment of Islamic courts, a complete withdrawal of the Pakistan army from tribal areas and compensation for the victims of U.S. drone strikes.
The list has shocked Pakistan’s political and cultural elite, Washington Post reported.
“If this is true, it will not be acceptable to very many people in Pakistan,” Khalid Naeem Lodhi, a former Pakistan army major general, said of the demands.
Dawn News quotes Professor Ibrahim as saying, “the Taliban would first demand the implementation of Shariah law in Pakistan and if the government really wanted to impose it in the country in a democratic manner, it could have easily been done in the past 65 years.”
Analysts caution, according to the paper, that Sharif’s government may not have much leeway to bargain with the Taliban. Although Pakistan’s constitution is rooted in Islamic principles and law, it also includes provisions guaranteeing the rights of women and minorities, it wrote.
Efforts to ban women from wearing jeans in public would likely run afoul of those principles, Khalil ur-Rehman Khan, a former Supreme Court justice told the paper.
Though it’s rare for women to wear jeans in rural parts of the country, it’s becoming more common to see young urban women wear them in public, it stated.
“Under Islam, you have to dress in a way that is not profane, or abusive, but that choice is given, and it’s based on how society accepts you,” Khan said. “And the culture of society changes with the passage of time, more education.”
Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based defense analyst, said Nawaz Sharif would also run into resistance from military leaders if he agreed to any prisoner release. Many military leaders are still angered that Taliban commanders freed under previous peace initiatives have returned to the battlefield, he said.
“There have been several peace deals with the Taliban, and none of them have worked, and I don’t think things have diametrically changed,” Hussain added.
Apparently taking notice of the rumor-mill on “TTP’s 10-demands”, the Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah told WP in a phone interview that, “We have not yet put forward any conditions or demands for the talks.” “If there is a list of demands in the media, that is not ours but may be someone else’s.”
That’s great to hear they have not put forward any demands but there are so many sips between the cup and the lip,” said Khurram Habib, an overseas Pakistani professional. (by Irshad Salim)