Efforts by Pakistan’s new government to reach a peace deal with the country’s Taliban insurgents have quickly run into trouble, a sign of how difficult it will be to end a conflict that has threatened the stability of the nuclear-armed nation.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaigned last spring on a platform of engaging the domestic Taliban to end years of violence that has claimed the lives of an estimated 50,000 people, including 5,000 Pakistani soldiers.
The effort is crucial to his goal of jump-starting Pakistan’s lifeless economy. Perhaps more importantly, it could remove a potential source of support for the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan at a time when US forces there are preparing to pull out.
Three months after taking office, Sharif scored a major victory last week when the country’s 12 major political parties endorsed talks with the Pakistani Taliban.
Within days, the insurgent group’s leaders said they had released three Pakistani security officials in exchange for six militants, to encourage the peace process. The army denied that the release was related to future talks, but many commentators suggested it could help lead to negotiations.
Regardless, by Sunday, the peace effort was in trouble — before it had ever really begun.
The Pakistani Taliban’s Supreme Council released demands for a cease-fire — including the release of all its imprisoned militants and the withdrawal of the army from all tribal regions — that some government leaders called unrealistic.
Even more problematic, a two-star army general and two other military officials were killed later that day by a roadside bomb in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, near the border with Afghanistan.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the explosion, which Sharif called “gutless.”
Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the insurgents, said attacks would continue.
“We have not yet accepted the government offer for talks, and we are at war, as there is no cease-fire,” he said in a phone interview.
On Monday, Pakistan’s powerful army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, warned that the country’s 520,000-member army would not be bullied.
“No one should have any misgivings that we would let the terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms,” Gen Kayani said, adding the “army has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists”.
Former and current government officials have criticised Nawaz Sharif for not yet laying out a clear vision for how the country should handle its more than 40 militant groups, many of them comprised of Islamist extremists.
“Nobody is saying we can’t talk, but talking from a position of weakness is never the way forward,” said Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States. “We can’t afford this Alice-in-Blunderland approach to crucial national security issues.”
The uneven start to Pakistan’s peace process comes just months after the Obama administration attempted to start a dialogue between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Afghan Taliban leaders.
In late June, a day before State Department officials planned to meet with Taliban representatives in Qatar, a Taliban rocket attack killed four US service members in eastern Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Karzai became enraged that the Taliban had hoisted its banner over its temporary offices in Doha. The planned discussions fell through, although the Obama administration is hopeful they will occur at some point.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban claim to be unaffiliated. But there is considerable cross-border movement, and the Afghan insurgents are believed to have havens inside Pakistan.
Some analysts worry that the Pakistani Taliban might help Afghanistan’s insurgents in trying to topple the government in Kabul after the departure of US forces in 2014. Another concern is that members of the Afghan Taliban could be flushed out of their country and flood into Pakistan.
Rustam Shah Mohmand, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, said Nawaz Sharif and Afghan officials will have “to work in a concerted way” with goals and a strategy if they expect to bring Taliban leaders on either side of the border to the bargaining table.
“In a situation as complex as this, things don’t just happen,” he said.