Pakistan enters peace talks with Taliban

The BBC's Shahzeb Jillani: "They are asking the Taliban to cease attacks"

The first formal meeting between Pakistan's government and a Taliban-nominated team has been held in Islamabad, officials say.

The talks are aimed at charting a "roadmap" for negotiations that will try to end a decade-long insurgency.

The government set out five conditions, including ending hostilities, saying a "journey for peace" had started.

The Taliban team agreed to travel to the north-west to discuss the conditions with the leadership.

Militants from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been waging an insurgency inside Pakistan since 2007.

Analysis

What the joint statement sought to portray as an agreement between the two mediating teams is in fact the government's proposed framework for talks.

It doesn't yet have Taliban approval and two of the conditions run counter to Taliban demands.

Firstly, the militants have repeatedly rejected the Pakistani constitution. Secondly, they have said they are fighting for a strict Sharia law across Pakistan, not just in tribal areas worst affected by Taliban violence.

If the militants accept the government's proposed framework, it would be a major breakthrough and would offer hope for peace talks. But if they reject it outright, this latest initiative could prove to be a non-starter.

The talks initiative was announced last week by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, following a spate of attacks.

More than 100 people, including soldiers, died in Taliban attacks across the country in January. Thousands have been killed since the TTP came to the fore in 2007.

Doubts over success

The first session lasted about three hours at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House in Islamabad.

The head of the Taliban team, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, read out a joint statement afterwards.

It listed five basic conditions that had been set out by the government side:

  • All talks be held within the framework of the constitution
  • The scope of the talks should remain confined to areas affected by violence, not the whole country
  • All hostilities should cease during talks
  • The Taliban should clarify the role of a separate nine-member committee that they have established
  • The talks should not be protracted

The Taliban team agreed to travel to Miranshah in the north-west to take the conditions to the leadership and pledged to report back to the government committee as soon as possible.

Both committees agreed that neither side should initiate an act that might damage the talks process.

Chief government negotiator Irfan Siddiqui (L) and Taliban team head Maulana Sami ul-Haq Chief government negotiator Irfan Siddiqui (L) said the talks with the Taliban team, led by Maulana Sami ul-Haq, were cordial
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House in Islamabad, 6 Feb The first session lasted about three hours at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House in Islamabad

The statement also said that the Taliban side had sought clarification on the power and mandate of the government committee involved in the talks, and whether it could accept and act on demands made by the Taliban.

Both sides condemned recent violence.

Who are the Pakistani Taliban?

  • With its roots in the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban movement came to the fore in 2007 by unleashing a wave of violence
  • Its leaders have traditionally been based in Pakistan's tribal areas but it is really a loose affiliation of militant groups, some based in areas like Punjab and even Karachi
  • The various Taliban groups have different attitudes to talks with the government - some analysts say this has led to divisions in the movement
  • Collectively they are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis and have also co-ordinated assaults on numerous security targets
  • Two former TTP leaders, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, as well as many senior commanders have been killed in US drone strikes
  • It is unclear if current leader Maulana Fazlullah, who comes from outside the tribal belt, is even in Pakistan, but he has a reputation for ruthlessness

The chief negotiator for the government side, Irfan Siddiqui, said: "Today, we started the journey for peace, and both sides have agreed to complete it as soon as possible."

The BBC's Shahzeb Jillani in Pakistan says that while some have hopes for the process, others are deeply sceptical and see it as a sign of weakness on the part of the government.

Joining Mr Siddiqui on the government team was veteran journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, former ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand and a retired major from the ISI intelligence service, Amir Shah.

The Taliban refrained from naming representatives from within their own ranks and instead nominated pro-Taliban religious figures to represent their views.

The three-man TTP team comprised Mr ul-Haq, known as the "Father of the Taliban"; the chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz; and the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami party, Ibrahim Khan.

The Taliban want to see Sharia (Islamic law) imposed throughout Pakistan and US troops to withdraw from the region.

Since taking office last May, Mr Sharif has come under mounting pressure to bring the violence under control, with many accusing his government of lacking a strategy to deal with the militants, correspondents say.

He recently said he wanted to end the insurgency by peaceful means, but has indicated that stronger military action will be used if talks fail.

Correspondents say some in Pakistan are worried the talks will only allow the militants time to gain strength and regroup. Previous attempts to engage the Pakistani Taliban in dialogue have all failed.

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