‘Pakistani Taliban concerned how to save their skin in peace talks with gov’t’ – expert

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The first round of peace talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the government has been held in Islamabad following numerous delays. That’s according to Al Jazeera. The talks initiative was announced last week by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, following a spate of attacks that have killed dozens of people. Negotiations are due to resume on Friday. The Voice of Russia talked to Ahmed Quraishi, Pakistani columnist and a senior research fellow at the Project “Pakistan in the 21st Century”.

The two sides met on Thursday for a preliminary meeting aimed at charting a ‘roadmap’ for future negotiations.

In a statement after the talks that lasted over three hours, the two sides stressed their commitment to dialogue. They agreed to refrain from acts that might damage the negotiation process.

Chief government negotiator Ifran Siddiqui described the atmosphere at the talks as ‘cordial and friendly’. He said the two sides started the journey for peace, adding that they were determined to complete it as soon as possible.

Since taking office last May, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has come under mounting pressure to bring the violence under control. He recently said that he wanted to end the insurgency by peaceful means, but indicated that stronger military action will be used, if the talks fail.

Head of the Taliban team, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, said on Wednesday there was no chance of a peace deal unless the government agreed to the group’s demand to impose Islamic law throughout Pakistan.

The government has insisted that the country’s constitution must remain paramount.

A few words, please, about the prospect of peace talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the government?

There is not much clarity as to how they will proceed yet. I think it will be fair to say that the result is still uncertain and the situation is very confusing, and if to go into details, we do have one party that we are negotiating with, the so-called Pakistani Taliban – PTP. But actually they are just a coalition of several smaller groups and many of those groups are known to have fought with each other as well. So, you never know if this coalition of PTP would be able to present the Pakistani government, whether each group within the PTP would abide by everything that the negotiators agree to while talking to the Pakistani government representatives. So, there is not really much clarity about that and PTP has not really spoken publicly much about their own internal process of negotiations between different groups that make up PTP. So, you’ll have to wait for several more days before anyone could judge how far this negotiation would go.

All previous attempts to bring the Pakistani Taliban to the negotiating table have failed. Do you think that now the two sides are willing to meet each other halfway?

My assessment is that there is a concern without Pakistan Taliban about their own support basis, Afghan territory across the Pakistani border. They are worried about the future of those hideouts in the aftermath of the American and NATO drawdown in Afghanistan. And I am sure the background, and I will not go much into details but I will just mention the fact that on several locations the Pakistani military was able to flash out many of these PTP fighters only to find out that they are hiding and regrouping in small bases, safe havens so to speak inside Afghan territory close to Pakistani border. And there were accusations at very high level Pakistani government that some of those safe havens of the PTP were linked or sponsored to Afghan intelligence, the NDS intelligence agency working under president Karzai. And there have been a couple of reports about that of course published in the American media that appeared recently. So, there is a question mark about how long the PTP can sustain a confrontational attitude towards Pakistani state and the Pakistani military if their sanctuaries inside Afghan territory cannot last for too long without the Afghan government cover. So, I would assume that this would be something that the PTP must be thinking debating and I think they would want to know whether they can strike a deal and reach an agreement with the Pakistani government where many of their members and the militants that are hiding now in the Afghan territory could return back to Pakistan under some sort of an amnesty. So, I think this would be one of the reasons that forced the PTP also to try to agree to this negotiation process in the hope that they might be accepted and reintegrated into Pakistan without facing up to any of the crimes they committed here.

Members of the Taliban team insist that the talks won’t succeed until the government agrees to impose Sharia – or Islamic law – in the country. Is this demand acceptable for the government?

I don’t think they would have the ability and it is not even legally possible to make such a demand and have the constitution amended or change in that way. In any case the Pakistani constitution does refer very strongly to the Pakistani Islamic Sharia. So, there is a strong segment of population that can very easily answer back that we are already in the Islamic republic and so that is a good point. I don’t think that there would be any much to this demand in terms of execution or implementation but you have to understand the Pakistani Taliban has to make this kind of statements as a starting point for the negotiations because they base their entire theory and practice on fighting the Pakistani army and the Pakistani state on the Islamic Sharia, so this has to be a rhetorical starting statement that they have to make and I don’t think they would sustain this demand for very long. I think their primary concern is not the imposition of Islamic Sharia. Their primary concern now is how to save their skin in case there is a drawdown in Afghanistan and in case they are unable to sustain their sanctuaries there. They want to see guarantees that they will be reintegrated without criminal cases being pursued against them. I think that would be the point on which these negotiations are going to hinge on and not the question of Islamic Sharia.

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