ISLAMABAD - Negotiators representing Taliban said Wednesday peace is impossible until the government embraces Sharia (Islamic law) and US-led forces withdraw completely from neighbouring Afghanistan.
The tough conditions, just a day before the four-member government peace committee meets with the three-member team designated by the Tahreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), appear to deal a blow to hopes that a peaceful solution could end the insurgency that has rocked the country since 2007.
The government has retaken the talks’ initiative despite a string of deadly attacks by the Taliban that thwarted a previous effort to start negotiations but it insists that country’s constitution must remain paramount and no demand affecting the basic structure of state and its governance system would be acceptable.
Initial peace talks failed to get under way Tuesday when the government delegation refused to meet the militants’ negotiators, citing confusion about the make-up of their team, while the Taliban representatives alleged the government side of ‘insincerity’. But government committee’s coordinator Irfan Siddiqui said Wednesday the meeting is now expected on Thursday (today) and they were ready to meet Taliban’s team anywhere they wanted.
There has been much confusion about the powers and mandate of the Taliban negotiators as none of the three men — JUI-S chief Samiul Haq, Prof Ibrahim of JI and Lal Masjid Cleric Abdul Aziz – has any formal place in TTP hierarchy. This concern has been voiced by government side a number of times. On Wednesday, Siddiqui said “we will listen to reservations of the Taliban’s committee pertaining to our powers and will also redress them.” He added that they would also apprise them of ‘our reservations’.
The TTP spokesman on Tuesday said that Sami-led team was ‘fully authorised’ to negotiate with the government but Samiul Haq himself said on Wednesday that they neither represented government nor the Taliban. Talking to media and addressing a Kashmir rally on Wednesday, he said their committee is ‘impartial’ and it would be ‘neutral’, seeing interests of both sides.
The chief of his own faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam also responded to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s suggestion that a member of the TTP should be included in the committee and termed it ‘strange request’. He stressed that their role would be of ‘mediators’ who would go and speak to the TTP and then convey their message to the government.
Sami said there could be “no peace” in the region while there were still US troops across the border and no peace in Pakistan until the government embraces Sharia. He said that solution to problem lies in the hands of Taliban and government, but government seemed powerless in putting an end to the drone strikes and distancing Pakistan from the ongoing war.
His comments were echoed by his fellow TTP negotiator Maulana Abdul Aziz, who also said the TTP’s long-held commitment to impose Sharia law across the country was not open to debate. “Without Sharia law, the Taliban won’t accept (the talks) even one percent,” he said. “If some factions accept it, then the others won’t accept it.”
Given the gulf between the two sides, there has been scepticism about what the talks could achieve. Local peace deals with the militants in the past have quickly fallen apart. “Their real agenda is Sharia,” Aziz said, suggesting that all secular courts based on the common law system be abolished. “I don’t think the government will accept this but they should, because war isn’t the way forward.”
On Afghanistan, Aziz said an endorsement of the security pact with Washington would scupper hopes for regional peace. “We think these (Afghanistan and Pakistan) are two brotherly countries. Peace in Pakistan means peace in Afghanistan and vice versa,” he said. If Afghanistan signs the agreement, he said, “war will continue, and the clash between Muslims and the US will continue... If the agreement goes ahead then the losses they (US) have experienced before, they will experience once again”.
The TTP has some links to the Afghan Taliban and pledge allegiance to their supreme leader Mullah Omar. But while the Afghan Taliban’s fight is focused on Karzai’s government and its Nato backers, the TTP’s main target is the Pakistani state. Samiul Haq is also head of the Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary that counts Mullah Omar as a graduate.
Underlining the parlous security situation in Pakistan, eight people were killed in a suicide bombing targeting Shias in Peshawar on Tuesday. Mufti Hassan Swati, the head of the TTP’s Peshawar wing, claimed the attack, though the group’s central spokesman Shahidullah Shahid earlier denied it. Asked why they attacked while talks were going on, Swati told a foreign news agency “the peace talks are under way but there is no ceasefire. We will continue attacks until a ceasefire is announced”.
According to a private TV channel, before meeting Taliban designated team the government peace committee will meet DG ISI Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam on Thursday to discuss the progress in peace talks. The government committee will also meet Army Chief General Raheel Sharif after he returns from Saudi Arabia.