Weary of Violence, Pakistan Opts for Peace Talks With the Taliban

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Ishtiaq Mahsud / AP

Asmatullah Muawiya, head of the Taliban’s faction of fighters from central Punjab province, listens to reporters at an undisclosed place in the Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan on Aug. 15, 2013

Pakistan’s political leaders have decided to pursue negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban and other militants in an attempt to bring a halt to an unrelenting wave of terrorist violence across the country that has killed over 800 since a general election in May.

On Monday, a conference of all of Pakistan’s political parties said it supported the new government’s efforts to bring the militants to the negotiating table. Within moments of the declaration being released, the Pakistani Taliban hailed the move. “[The] Taliban welcomes the dialogue offer and has a positive outlook about the joint communiqué,” Shahid Shahidullah, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman, told Geo News.

As the U.S. prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan next year, Pakistan’s leaders have argued that it is time for the country to bring its own conflict to a close through political settlement. Previous attempts at peace with the Pakistani Taliban, however, have only made things worse.

“The Afghan Taliban are representative of at least a faction of the Afghan people,” says retired Brigadier Shaukat Qadir. “Our Taliban are not representative of any people.”

In 2009, a cease-fire agreement with the Pakistani Taliban broke down in the Swat Valley after the militants seized the opportunity to deepen their hold of the territory, expanding into adjacent areas and imposing their own brutal brand of Shari‘a.

Despite that, there is a widespread feeling of war weariness — something that cricket legend turned politician Imran Khan tapped into during the polls when his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan’s Movement for Justice) party swept to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Khan has been instrumental in lobbying for negotiations.

“Most of these parties have been telling their people that this war can’t be won just by military action,” says Talat Masood, a retired general turned analyst.

There is, however, a widespread reluctance to acknowledge that the problem of violence is Pakistan’s own. The conference, says security analyst Ejaz Haider, has effectively argued that “whatever happens in Pakistan is part of the blowback from Afghanistan.” Such thinking, he says, ignores the fact that much domestic bloodshed — like sectarian violence toward Shi‘ites, to cite just one factor — has nothing to do with the Afghan conflict.

It is also unclear how negotiations will work. The Pakistani Taliban have repeatedly said that they aren’t prepared to lay down their arms during negotiations or concede on issues like female education or recognize the authority of what they say are “un-Islamic” laws.

“In that case, it won’t work,” says Masood. “We’ll have to go for a military operation.”