x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pakistan PM appears to drop Taliban peace talks plan

Months after promising peace talks with Islamist insurgents, Pakistan's new prime minister appears to be backing down and accepting that the use of military force may be unavoidable in the face of escalating violence across the South Asian country.

Security personnel and media at the site of a suspected suicide bomb attack in Karachi.
Security personnel and media at the site of a suspected suicide bomb attack in Karachi.

ISLAMABAD // Months after promising peace talks with Islamist insurgents, Pakistan's new prime minister appears to be backing down and accepting that the use of military force may be unavoidable in the face of escalating violence across the South Asian country.

Almost 200 people have been killed in rebel attacks in Pakistan since the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, came to power last month, advocating peace talks with the Pakistani branch of the Taliban.

Mr Sharif's tougher line signals that Pakistan's powerful military still has the upper hand in policymaking, despite hopes that the government would have a larger say after he came to power in the country's first transition between civilian administrations.

"Of course we want to try talks but they are a far-off possibility," said a government official.

"There is so much groundwork that needs to be done. And when you are dealing with a group as diverse and internally divided as the Pakistani Taliban, then you can never be sure that every subgroup would honour talks."

The military has ruled Pakistan for more than half the 66 years it has been independent.

Seeking to dispel a view that he is losing the momentum, Mr Sharif, who once said that "guns and bullets are not always the answer", has promised to come up with a new security strategy.

But progress has been painfully slow, blighted by infighting and the army's long-standing contempt for the civilian leadership.

An official report into the killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces in Pakistan in 2011, leaked this month, offered striking insights into just how deep this distrust runs.

In the document, the former chief of the ISI intelligence agency, which is dominated by the military, was quoted as saying bluntly that the country's political leadership was "unable to formulate any policy".

The military and the ISI are in favour of talks involving the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, but not at home in Pakistan. Although the Pakistani Taliban accepts the leader of the Afghan faction as its own leader, the two groups operate separately.

Yet Pakistan's military leaders are at pains to distinguish between the Afghan Taliban, which they argue can be seen as fighting against occupation, and its local imitators who they see as domestic terrorists.

Known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban is a loose alliance of Al Qaeda-linked militants fighting to topple the government and to enforce austere Islamic law.

The army says talking to them is meaningless unless they lay down their arms. The Taliban, enraged by a May 28 drone strike that killed its deputy chief, Wali ur Rehman, is in no mood for negotiations either.

"We have authorised our people all over Pakistan to fully react if the government and security forces conduct operations against them," said one Taliban commander in the tribal western region of South Waziristan.

Ceasefire deals have failed in the past, serving only to allow militants to regroup and strike again.

Mr Sharif's new security plan is a shift from the previous government's 3D policy of "deterrence, development, democracy" to "dismantle, contain, prevent, educate and reintegrate".

It's unclear what this means in practice, and an all-party conference, designed as a step in adopting the new security plan, has been postponed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's army largely has a free hand regarding internal security. It is the army, its intelligence agencies and the Taliban itself who will decide whether to talk or fight.

Politicians hope that may be changing.

Mr Sharif, who has twice been prime minister and was ousted in a military coup in 1999, is manoeuvring carefully.

He has made a rare visit to the ISI headquarters to confront the generals face to face, while also ordering that a working group be set up to initiate peace talks with militant groups.

His main idea is to establish an independent body above the government to coordinate intelligence sharing and correct what is known in Pakistan as the "civilian-military imbalance". Some in the military believe the ball is in the prime minister's court.

For now, when it comes to the Taliban, there is more confusion than clarity.

"On the ground there is no policy as such," said one senior police officer in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region on the Afghan border. "Should I fight them or talk to them?"