Preliminary talks between representatives from each group were due to start today in Islamabad, but the government said it wanted more clarification about who was on the Taliban negotiating team and its mandate.
The peace effort came as a surprise to observers who had expected the government to launch a fresh military operation after two particularly deadly months of clashes with the Taliban. But Nawaz Sharif, who campaigned on a promise to seek a truce with the Taliban, said he wanted to give talks a "last chance." It is unclear now how negotiations will proceed and what each party would be willing to cede to end a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Last week, with pressure mounting for a fresh military operation against Taliban positions in North Waziristan, Mr. Sharif told parliament he had accepted an offer to resume negotiations. Since then, the government and the Taliban have nominated intermediaries.
The government team includes two prominent journalists who have closely covered the Pakistani Taliban, as well as a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Rustam Shah Mohmand, and a former military intelligence official, Amir Shah. Shah is the son of an influential cleric who founded a seminary attended by several Pakistani Taliban leaders, including its current head, Maulana Fazlullah.
The Taliban named three clerics as negotiators. They include Sami ul Haq, the head of another seminary attended by leaders in the Afghan Taliban, and Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The Taliban also nominated two politicians, Imran Khan and Mufti Kifayatullah, apparently without notifying them. Both politicians declined to participate.
The Taliban appear to be using the negotiations to get a feel for what the government is willing to compromise on. They are "playing more politics now," says Athar Abbas, a retired Major General who served as a spokesman when the military brokered several previous peace deals with the Taliban, almost all of which subsequently fell apart.
Mr. Abbas says the latest talks are likely to follow the same lines as previous ones, such as a truce reached in the Swat Valley in 2009. “Generally, their [the Taliban's] strategy is to make demands that will have an effect on the ground, material incentives, and then offer others to bring the state under pressure.”
The Taliban will likely ask for dismantling of military checkpoints in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and permission for their leadership, which is currently scattered far from their bases, to return home, says Abbas. The group is also expected to seek the release of prisoners, and compensation for material losses suffered in fighting with the Pakistani military. To increase pressure on the government, Abbas says the Taliban will continue to press for the enforcement of sharia law in Pakistan, and an end to cooperation with the United States.
Many of these demands will be unacceptable to Pakistani leaders and the military, says Mansur Khan Mehsud, head of the FATA Research Center, a think tank based in Islamabad. “For the army to withdraw, after so many sacrifices, lives lost, to take the area you want back...if these are the demands, they are unlikely to be met," he says.
The question of enforcing sharia law is even more contentious. Pakistan's constitution states that it is based on Islamic regulations, but leaves open the question of interpreting and applying the rules to the courts and parliament. “There are fifty different sects in Pakistan,” Mr. Mehsud says. “Whose sharia will be enforced?”
Whatever the outcome of talks, Abbas says it will not be easy to convince the Taliban's leadership to give up whatever authority they have wrestled from the government in places like North Waziristan. “They have tasted power. Their fight is mostly about power, authority, and money, and they will want their entire area back to hold on to it.”