ISLAMABAD - In their first-ever direct contact, government and Taliban negotiators met for more than three hours Thursday and exchanged demands to carry forward the elusive peace process aimed at ending the bloody seven-year insurgency.
After the meeting which lasted almost four hours, Samiul Haq, the chief negotiator of Tahreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), read out a joint statement to the media saying the two sides met under a cordial environment.
The four-member government committee led by PM’s adviser Irfan Siddiqui demanded that talks be held within the framework of the constitution, and that the scope of the peace talks be limited to only the insurgency-affected (northwestern tribal) areas of the country.
The government committee also said that all (subversive) activities which may affect peace efforts should immediately be stopped, and that talks should be smoothly concluded in a short timeframe. Referring to the 10-member Taliban monitoring committee, they sought clarification regarding scope and authority of both TTP teams.
On the other hand, the Taliban named committee urged the government to clarify the mandate and level of authority of its negotiators, and their ability to implement an eventual peace pact. They also expressed their desire to meet with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Army Chief General Raheel Sharif and ISI DG Zaheerul Islam.
Journalists were not allowed to ask questions following the joint press release. Government’s chief negotiator Irfan Siddiqui hailed the meeting saying, “We are really happy that the Taliban committee has responded to us beyond our expectations and they have heard our reservations and told us their reservations with an open heart... We share the common goal of making this country peaceful in accordance with Islamic teachings.“
Samiul Haq said his team would soon visit Waziristan to convey the demands of the government’s committee to the Taliban leadership and a second round of talks would be held after they had responded. But insiders believe it will take some time for the TTP nominated committee to get clear cut guidelines on the framework and ambit of the negotiations from top TTP leadership, which still fears American drones could strike them in Pakistan or even across the border in Afghanistan.
The two committees, who met at Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House Islamabad, agreed to hold another meeting to take the process further and Sami said that both sides condemned the recent violence and terrorist attacks, and agreed that “there should be no activity by either side (government or militants) which can potentially harm the peace efforts”.
Earlier in the day, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali and Samiul Haq agreed to remain in contact on daily basis in connection with all developments on peace process. In a telephonic contact with the minister, JUI-S chief appreciated efforts of Nisar to hold dialogue with the Taliban and bring peace in the country. The minister told Sami that government had adopted the dialogue process whole-heartedly and will support its continuity and success from the core of the heart. He said the whole nation was praying for the success of peace talks and supported the efforts of both the committees in this regard.
The militants watched the progress of the talks from their mountainous hideouts on the Afghan border, with their interests represented by three Taliban-friendly public figures hand-picked by the insurgents. Several earlier efforts at striking peace deals with the militants failed to end the violence for long, only allowing them to regroup, recruit new fighters and strike back with renewed vengeance.
The TTP has killed thousands of people in gun and bomb attacks across Pakistan since it launched its campaign in 2007. Underlining the fragile security situation, a suicide bomber on Tuesday killed eight people in a sectarian attack against minority Shias in Peshawar, just hours after the abortive start to the talks. The main TTP spokesman denied they were behind the blast but a commander for the group in Peshawar claimed his men were responsible, saying no ceasefire had been announced.
Many in Pakistan doubt that talking to an insurgent group that stages almost daily attacks will succeed. The TTP is a deeply fragmented umbrella group consisting of dozens of entities, so striking a deal with one of them would not necessarily stop the violence. Saifullah Khan Mehsud, director of the FATA Resarch Centre, told AFP that this made it difficult to achieve even a ceasefire as a first step. “I don’t know if the Taliban are on the same page and which groups that these negotiators are representing, so I don’t know if they can guarantee a ceasefire at all,” he said.