ISLAMABAD - The government on Sunday said it was halting air strikes against Taliban militants in response to a month-long ceasefire announced by the insurgents a day earlier, paving the way for the resumption of peace talks.
The government entered into peace talks with the Taliban last month aimed at ending the militants’ seven-year insurgency, but the dialogue broke down after militants killed 23 kidnapped soldiers.
The military responded with a series of air strikes in the tribal areas that left more than 100 insurgents dead, and on Saturday the Taliban announced a month-long ceasefire aimed at resuming the stalled talks.
“After the positive announcement yesterday by the Taliban, the government has decided to suspend the air strikes which were continuing for the past few days,” Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said in a statement Sunday.
The statement added that “the government and armed forces of Pakistan, however, reserve the right for a befitting response to any act of violence (by the Taliban)”.
The Taliban’s ceasefire announcement on Saturday was met with scepticism by analysts who said it may have been a tactic to allow the militants to regroup after they had taken heavy losses in air strikes.
But Ch Nisar said the “government considers the announcement of stopping of violent activities by Taliban a positive development”.
He added that since the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took charge in June last year, Islamabad had not taken “any unjustified action” against the militants, choosing only to react to violence rather than initiating any new military operations.
Nisar made it clear that since the government came to power in June last year, neither it launched a formal military operation nor resorted to any unnecessary action. Any action taken in the past was in response or to stop violent activities, he added.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a member of the government’s negotiation team, told AFP: “I think that the possibility of resumption of peace talks has now increased. A ceasefire was the demand of the government and the negotiations committee. “But the ceasefire should be effective. If attacks continue then the conducive environment we are searching for won’t materialise.”
Reacting to the minister’s announcement, political analyst Raza Rumi told AFP that the government was attempting to play a balancing act and had to match the Taliban’s ceasefire “to ensure right wing public opinion does not turn against them”.
“I think one issue is the government wants to appear as a peace loving political entity. But deep down there is a desire by both parties to buy more time given the way the situation is unfolding in Afghanistan.
“They want to wait for what happens,” he said, referring to the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and its regional impact.
Security analyst Talat Masood, a retired general, said the ceasefire had come about because the military’s air strikes had forced the Taliban back to the negotiation table, and that the government should be careful not to lose its advantage.
“One of the inherent dangers of a ceasefire is that it allows militants to regroup or reorganise. We will have to increase our intelligence to closely monitor if militants are regrouping or escaping during the ceasefire,” he said.
He added that militant groups which are not in favour of talks may try to disrupt the ceasefire.
Quoting official sources, private TV channels reported that the decision was taken after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif discussed the issues with all stakeholders and party leaders.
The prime minister had started consultations about a response to the Taliban’s ceasefire late Saturday and the process continued Sunday. He also presided over a high-level meeting in Lahore Sunday to evolve consensus on the issue.
The prime minister was happy at the Taliban decision and was thinking of declaring a ceasefire on part of the government too.