The Pakistani government has sought the help of the central body of religious clerics in an attempt to reach out to the Taliban for peace talks. But many Pakistanis think it is a bad idea.
Wafaq-ul-Madaris, an umbrella organization of Pakistan's religious organizations, has claimed that the Taliban have responded "positively" to its offer on peace talks with the Pakistani government. It also claims that it was the government which had requested the organization to reach out to the militants. On Tuesday, the leaders of Wafaq-ul-Madaris had reportedly met Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, and briefed him about their contacts with the militants.
Wafaq-ul-Madaris is a central body of predominantly Sunni-Deobandi religious organizations. The Sunni-Deobandi school of Islam has an affinity to Saudi Wahhabi Islam, also Sunni, which the Taliban follow. Liberal Pakistanis accuse Saudi Wahhabis and the Sunni-Deobandi clerics of spreading hatred and intolerance in the country.
In an interview with DW, Qari Hanif Jalandhari, secretary general of Wafaq-ul-Madaris, says his organization is trying to mediate between the government and the Taliban. He claimed that the Taliban had agreed on a ceasefire. "Now we are waiting for the government's response," Jalandhari said. "We hope that the government will also reciprocate the gesture. We can only formulate our strategy once we know how the government wants to proceed from here."
Jalandhari's claims, however, do not correspond with a recent statement by the Pakistani Taliban, also know as the Tekrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in which the militants said they would not cease their attacks until the US drone strikes in Pakistan's northwestern tribal areas came to a halt. Pakistan has repeatedly protested against US drone strikes, which it says kills civilians. Independent analysts confirm civilian casualties but also verify deaths of a number of key Taliban and al Qaeda leaders. Previous attempts to pursue peace with the Islamist militants have failed. The Taliban expressed a willingness to engage in talks with Islamabad at the end of last year, but ultimately backed out after their deputy leader was killed in a US drone strike.
Talks with the Taliban also have the backing of the US, which is making serious efforts to negotiate with the Islamists to find a solution to the decade-long Afghan conflict.
Who to negotiate with?
Critics of the government, however, are against talks with the Taliban. They believe that concession to the militants will only embolden them. They say the talks are bound to fail because the militants neither believe in the parliamentary system of governance nor the constitution of Pakistan. They also point out that there are multiple factions of the Taliban, and that nobody knows who the real representatives of the Islamists are.
But Khalid Rehman, head of the non-governmental Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad, believes the government's intelligence agencies know which groups they should talk to.
"It is obvious that the government has resources to identify these groups. We, however, don't expect the government to reveal the identity of these factions and their leaders as it would go against the spirit of negotiations," Rehman told DW.
On the other hand, not all religious groups agree on talks with the Taliban. Shiite religious organizations unequivocally oppose any kind of engagement with the Taliban, who have killed scores of minority Shiites in the past few years and have attacked their places of worship all over the country.
"Those who are dreaming to make peace with the Taliban live in a fool's paradise," Allama Ameen Shaheedi, a Shiite cleric, 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.
Support for dialogue
After winning the May 11 elections, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had made it clear that his party would rather engage in "peace talks" with Islamist militants than launch military operations against them. The Center-right Tehreek-e-Insaf - Imran Khan's Movement for Justice Party - which governs the volatile province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, also opposes military action against the Islamists.
On September 9, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired an All Parties Conference on the issue of terrorism, in which the country's main political parties had agreed to support the Premier's calls for peace talks with the Taliban. The conference was attended by the leaders of Pakistan's major political parties as well as by the powerful military chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani and the ISI chief Zaheer-ul-Islam.
Aamir Rana, executive director of the Islamabad-based think tank Institute of Peace Studies, is one of many experts who think that Sharif has taken the right path to restore peace in the country.
"The dialogue strategy with the Taliban is working," Rana told DW, adding that it was also "a good sign that Sharif wants to have an upper hand in formulating the counter-terrorism strategy, and is not relying totally on the military."
Growing power of the Taliban
Media reports suggest that the Islamists are spreading from semi-governed tribal areas to major Pakistani cities.
The Taliban have killed several thousand Pakistanis in the last ten years and have attacked both civilians and security forces. The militants want to impose their strict Shariah law upon people in Pakistan.
Last week, a bomb explosion killed at least 33 people in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar. The blast comes one week after a church bombing in the restive city killed more than 80 people. Taliban affiliated groups claimed responsibility of these attacks.
Peshawar-based development worker and political activist Maqsood Ahmad Jan believes the new rulers are confused and have no clear-cut strategy on how to counter terrorism in the country. "Sharif and Khan have no idea how to deal with the Taliban. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister said a few months ago he did not know who was behind the terrorist attacks in his province," Jan told DW.
The activist is of the opinion that the new rulers have turned a blind eye to Taliban atrocities and that such incidents are happening because Sharif and Khan are in favor of talks with the extremists. The result is that the radicals are getting bolder, he believes.