Pakistan wants to talk to its Taliban, but doesn't know what to say

Pakistanis favor comprehensive peace talks with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, but the process has been held back by disagreement over how to compromise.

By , Correspondent

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    Supporters of Pakistan's Sunni Tehreek rally to condemn the Taliban for attacking shrines, in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday, July 1. Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s new president, has repeatedly expressed his desire to sit down with the Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), but analysts say the hurdles are tremendous.
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Despite the Pakistani Taliban’s recent deadly attack on 10 foreign climbers, many Pakistanis still want to hold talks with the group to end a decade long conflict that has killed more than 50,000 people, mostly civilians.

Pakistan has a broad consensus in favor of talking to the Taliban. A May 2013 Pew survey found only 35 percent support using the military against the Taliban, and 64 percent saw the US as more of an enemy than a partner. Anecdotal evidence since the attack indicates that’s still the view.

“Both sides are interested in peace due to the reason that the government wants to improve its rating among people,” says Mansur Khan Mehsud, research director at the Fata Research Center.

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But the question is: How?

Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s new prime minister, has repeatedly expressed his desire to sit down with the Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), but analysts say the hurdles are tremendous.  It is highly unlikely that the TTP would ever recognize the current government as legitimate, or that the rest of Pakistan would accept the group's particular interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Others say ending the US alliance – a major demand from the TTP – is untenable. 

Civilian impact

The principle route for NATO supplies to Afghanistan goes through northwest Pakistan in the Khyber Agency. There, the TTP and Lashkar-e-Islam, an allied militant group, have been fighting the Pakistani Army for control since 2009. More than 370 people have been killed there this year, alone, and Pakistanis are tired of it.

Millions have been displaced by the conflict with the TTP in the past decade, and hundreds of thousands have fled to refugee camps scattered throughout the northwest to avoid it. Although the TTP supports the Afghan Taliban's insurgency next door, it has a separate leadership structure. And since 2008, it has focused its efforts on carving out territory for itself in northwest Pakistan, with the stated aim of replacing the Pakistani state with one enforcing their interpretation of sharia law.

Three months ago, Porughola, who goes by only one name, and 10 family members fled her home in Bara in the northwest of Pakistan in the Khyber Agency. Now she lives in the Jalozai refugee camp, situated about 21 miles southeast of Peshawar, along with more than 65,000 people from her area.

Porughola says her family left with “nothing but the clothes on our backs, no shoes on our feet” after her home was destroyed. “When we fled,” she says, “we didn’t know who was shelling us, the Army, or the extremists.” A shell landed near them and injured her daughter. Refugees from Bara like Porughola have a long journey to Jalaozai, walking eight hours south to Hangu, then paying up to $100 for transportation to the refugee camp. She like many other refugees is glad the military is in Bara, but likes the idea of the government talking to the militants.

"I have no idea about any [extremist] movement ... I want peace, peace in our areas," she says.

Starting talks, little consensus

In December, the TTP offered a cease-fire if Pakistan altered its constitution to be “in line with” sharia, ended its alliance with the US, and pulled its troops back from the tribal regions. In previous negotiations, the TTP has also demanded a general amnesty and the release of prisoners.

Despite statements from political parties promising talks, the TTP has continued attacks against civilians, and the Pakistani military has continued operations in places like Khyber Agency. Meanwhile, the US continues to target the TTP with drone strikes (though the number has gone down in recent months), which the militant group says would be impossible without Pakistani support.

The TTP claimed responsibility for the killing of 10 foreign tourists last week in the mountainous northern region of Gligit-Baltistan. Before that, the TTP had killed two lawmakers belonging to the Pakistan Tehrike-e-Insaaf (PTI), a party that openly called for talks with the group, and was thought to be immune to attacks because of its outspoken stance against the United States

Some say if the TTP was actually interested in talks, it would stop such attacks.

“The TTP's target is the Pakistani state,” says Raza Rumi, who heads the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. “This idea of talks should only happen once they give up arms and come to the negotiation table.”

Arbab Muhammad Tahir, of the Awami National Party says the ANP continues to support peace talks, but only if militants “give up terrorism and accept the writ of the government.” He adds:

“There cannot be a state within a state.”

Some think it is possible to pursue talks, even if the conflict is ongoing.

“There is a continuous effort [to hold peace talks],” says Muhammad Asim Khan, a spokesman for the ruling PML-N. He says an investigation of the attacks in Gilgit-Baltistan will be carried out, and any individuals responsible will be prosecuted. “They will be taken to task,” Mr. Khan says, “but those who have accepted the writ of the government, we will talk with them. Our doors are always open.”

The US alliance

“Pakistan can compromise, but not agree to all demands,” says. Mr. Mehsud. He says Pakistan cannot take provocative steps against the US like shooting down drones, or closing NATO supply routes because it depends on US aid, and full-fledged conflict with the US would prove disastrous.

But some peace talk supporters say the TTP draws support from Pakistanis who resent their country's involvement in the US “War On Terror,” and talks won’t have any effect until Pakistan ends its alliance with the US.

“[If] this war keeps going on, [the TTP] wont stop,” says Sami ul Haq, an influential cleric who runs Dar-ul-uloom Haqqania, a seminary in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa whose alumni include several of the Afghan Taliban's leaders.

The anticipated 2014 US withdrawal from Afghanistan will have a significant impact on the TTP, says Mehsud. The TTP exploits grassroots resentment of the US presence in Afghanistan, arguing the Pakistani state, as an ally of the US, is also a legitimate target.

Others say getting the TTP to stop fighting won’t be as simple as ending the US alliance, even if that were possible.

“There are apologists in Pakistan who say the Taliban are involved in terrorist activities because we are in league with the US ‘war on terror’,” says Asad Munir, who headed Inter-Services Intelligence in the tribal regions until 2005. “There is no confusion in the armed forces ... they have no doubt the Taliban are anti-Pakistan,” he says.

Even if the TTP's demands are untenable, some experts say simply getting them to the table might help stem violence in Pakistan.

“The process itself is important,” says Amir Rana, who heads the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.

“When [the TTP] make demands, the government will be prepared to understand their mindset,” he says.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentified Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s new prime minister. ]

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