Despite agreements between the Pakistani government and the Taliban on a number of issues, experts have doubts over the chances of success of the ongoing peace talks.
On Thursday, February 6, representatives of the Pakistani government and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) met in the Pakistani capital Islamabad to discuss a road map aimed at ending a decade-long violent insurgency in the country. In a joint statement issued after the talks, the two sides agreed on a ceasefire, however, the decision is yet to be endorsed by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Taliban leadership.
It is not the first time that the Pakistani government and the Islamist fundamentalists have engaged in peace talks. In November last year, Islamabad's efforts to start a dialogue with the militants came to an abrupt halt after Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud was assassinated in a US drone strike.
According to the AFP, the militants have killed at least 114 people in Pakistan since the start of the year
After the Thursday talks, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the Taliban's chief negotiator, told the media that his side agreed with Islamabad's demand that "there should be no activity by either side which could potentially harm the peace efforts."
For his part, the government mediator, Irfan Siddiqui, hailed the meeting and said the Taliban committee had responded beyond his expectations. "We share the common goal of making this country peaceful in accordance with Islamic teaching. I thank the Taliban committee for meeting us," Siddiqui said.
Commonalities and differences
One of the main Pakistani demands is that all talks be held within the framework of the constitution. But the Taliban have repeatedly called the Pakistani constitution "un-Islamic" and supported the introduction of shariah rule in the country.
Maulana Abdul Aziz, another member of the Taliban commitee, urged the government on Friday, February 7, to remove the condition of holding talks under the constitution. "There would be no problems if our constitution were the Quran and Sunnah," Aziz told a press conference in Islamabad.
Snehal Shingavi, a South Asia expert at the University of Texas, USA, is of the view, nonetheless, that the implementation of the shariah shouldn't be a problem as long as the extremists agree to Islamabad's demand that the scope of the dialogue should be confined to areas affected by violence and not the whole country.
"Previous Pakistani governments have allowed the Taliban to set up shariah courts in some parts of the country's northwest. This should not be an issue again," Shingavi said. The expert states, however, that Islamabad and the Taliban still differ on many other issues which are likely to hinder the next rounds of talks.
"I am not very optimistic about the talks. The larger problem that is driving the conflict is the US presence in Afghanistan. While the foreign troops will withdraw from the country by the end of the year, the American influence will not go away, and that will continue to push the conflict along."
Shingavi says Islamabad needs the Taliban to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan, particularly after the NATO drawdown, but points out that relations between the two sides are not as smooth as they once were.
"The Pakistani military and its intelligence agency, ISI, have a complex relationship with the Taliban. The TTP could have been routed militarily or through police actions. Everything indicates that they are not that sophisticated or large. But the ISI and the military have used them as part of their strategic game in Afghanistan. These talks will produce another ceasefire, but they will not be durable unless the underlying issues are resolved," Shingavi commented.
Support for talks
In the May 2013 parliamentary elections, the liberal Pakistan People's Party - which preferred military action against the Taliban over peace talks - was voted out of power. The parties that supported a dialogue with Islamists won the elections with a big margin.
Sharif, who returned to power for the third time as PM, made clear his government would not follow the anti-terrorism policy of former president Asif Ali Zaradari and would instead make peace with militants. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whose party rules the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, is also a big supporter of the talks.
Lahore-based political commentator Aamir Khakwani says it is not the first time that a country has engaged in peace talks with armed groups. "There is no harm in negotiating with the pro-peace members of a militant group. The talks are aimed at ending violence and forcing the Taliban to lay down their weapons, not to legitimize them," Khakwani told DW.
A renewal of violence?
Sharif's decision to pursue the peace talks came as a surprise to many Pakistanis who were hoping the government would launch a full-scale military operation after sporadic attacks against the insurgents in the restive North Waziristan region last month. They believe that concessions to extremists will only embolden them.
This view is shared by Nizamuddin Nizamani, a political analyst and researcher in Karachi, who argues the government shouldn't negotiate with "terrorists," and that they should be "eliminated."
Pakistani Shiite cleric Allama Ameen Shaheedi agrees: "Those who are dreaming to make peace with the Taliban live in a fool's paradise," Shaheedi told DW. "The Taliban have not ceased their violent attacks even for a day. The military operation is the only way to deal with them. The state must assert its power and save the country from these terrorists," he said.