ISLAMABAD: Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a major security threat to the country, is holding exploratory peace talks with the Pakistani government, a senior Taliban commander and tribal mediators told Reuters on Monday.
The talks are focused on the South Waziristan region and could be expanded to try to reach a comprehensive deal. The Taliban are making several demands including the release of fighters from prisons, said the commander.
A tribal mediator described the talks as “very difficult”.
The United States, the source of billions of dollars of aid vital for Pakistan’s military and feeble economy, may not look kindly on peace talks with the TTP, which it has labelled a terrorist group.
Past peace pacts with the TTP have backfired and merely gave the umbrella group time and space to consolidate, launch fresh attacks and impose their austere version of Islam on segments of the population.
“Yes, we have been holding talks but this is just an initial phase. We will see if there is a breakthrough,” said the senior Taliban commander, who asked not to be identified.
“Right now, this is at the South Waziristan level. If successful, we can talk about a deal for all the tribal areas.”
“We never wanted to fight to begin with,” said the senior Taliban commander. “Our aim was to rid Afghanistan of foreign forces. But the Pakistani government, by supporting America, left us no choice but to fight.”
Last month, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said that his administration is ready to start talks with all factions of the Taliban, including the Haqqani network.
“If negotiations fail to work, the government will launch military operations in the tribal areas,” he told a small group of journalists at his private residence in Lahore.
The prime minister did not specifically refer to North Waziristan – the tribal region where the Haqqanis are believed to be based – when talking about military campaigns.
He said that the approach currently being tried was similar to that which was tried in Swat, where the government offered a peace deal to the militants in 2009, but launched a military operation after the Taliban refused to honour their end of the bargain.
For the first time, the prime minister provided details about how the talks would be conducted. “We will not ask them to disarm before the negotiations since this is against the tribal culture. However, the political agents [government administrators in the tribal regions] will ask them to decommission themselves,” he said.
The TTP, a banned conglomerate of militant groups blamed for most violent acts in the country, welcomed the government’s offer for peace talks with all insurgent groups.
“The TTP welcomes the prime minister’s offer,” Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, TTP’s deputy commander and commander-in-chief in Bajaur Agency, told The Express Tribune by phone from an undisclosed location. But he set two preconditions for dialogue: The government should reconsider its relationship with the United States and enforce Islamic sharia in the country.
Maulvi Faqir and other senior TTP cadres are believed to be hiding in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Islamabad has blamed militants led by Maulvi Faqir for the recent cross-border attacks on its security forces.
“The US won’t be happy,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani expert on the Taliban. “If there is less pressure from Pakistan on the militants then they (the Pakistani Taliban) will turn their attention to Afghanistan.”