By Zia Ur Rehman

Feb 22-28, 2013

Twenty-four political parties and religious groups recommended talks with the Taliban as “first priority” in any strategy to restore peace in the country, in a joint declaration at the end of the all parties’ conference convened by the Awami National Party (ANP) on February 14. Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf and Jamaat-e-Islami were not among them.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) rejected the offer. “It is just an election move by the ANP,” Taliban spokesman Ehasanullah Ehsan told a local reporter. At a meeting of the TTP’s political council, 32 commanders from FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Balochistan, Sindh and Kashmir agreed there was nothing new about the offer, he said. “We still await a serious and result-oriented response from the security forces and the government to our dialogue offer,” Ehsan said.

The ANP organized the conference at a time when it is about to complete its five-year term as a coalition partner in the government. The TTP has made two recent offers for negotiations, asking for veteran political leaders Fazlur Rehman, Nawaz Sharif and Munawar Hasan to act as guarantors. But it wants the government to release five of its senior leaders, including Haji Muslim Khan, former spokesman for the Malakand Taliban, Mahmood Khan, a close aide of Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, and Maulvi Omar, the former TTP spokesman. The leaders would represent the Pakistani Taliban in negotiations with the government, they said.

“Despite having suffered so much at the hands of Taliban militants, the ANP is ready to talk to them for peace in the region,” said a parliamentarian from Swat who belongs to the party. “But their demands are very complicated.” He said there were concerns about security in the militancy-hit parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA, if the security forces withdrew as part of a truce.

“That is why the ANP convened the conference.” All key political parties and religious groups participated in the conference and supported the proposal for talks, he said, except Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

Jan Achakzai, an Islamabad-based security expert, said that despite challenges, the fact that the ANP brought many different parties on one table was a feat in itself. But, he added, the challenges are immense. The media is not convinced talks with the Taliban will be useful, the civil society is critical of such moves, and ex-army analysts and commentators are angry.

As pointed out by the TTP spokesman, there were no clear roadmaps or goalposts in the final communique. “Apparently, the main stakeholder – the army – was to be taken on board before any possible roadmaps were drawn,” Achakzai said.

On the other hand, the PTI and the JI, two strong proponents of peace talks with Taliban militants, did not participate in the conference because they believe, like the TTP, that it was a political gimmick by the ANP.

“The ANP supported Pakistan’s participation in the war on terror for the last five years, which has cost the nation over 60,000 lives and an estimated $100 billion,” said Abdul Quayyum Kundi, a member of PTI’s Advisory Committee and its possible candidate from DI Khan district. “The PTI on the other hand has always supported peace talks to resolve the issue.” Achakzai believes that PTI simply did not want the ANP to steal its position on talks with the Taliban.

After the growing uncertainty over the ANP’s ability to hold the talks, Fazlur Rehman’s faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam decided to convene a grand tribal Jirga. “We will invite tribal elders in the Jirga because they know Taliban very well,” Abdul Ghafoor Haidri, the JUI-F secretary general, told reporters. Sources in the party say Fazlur Rehman has discussed the issue with ANP chief Asfandyar Wali and they have agreed to take the proposal forward.

Political observers disagree on whether talks with the Taliban will be effective. “Since the surfacing of Pakistani Taliban, the government has brokered several truces with various Taliban factions in attempts to pacify the militants.” said Sardar Ahmed Yousafzai, a Swat-based political analyst. “But almost all of them resulted in further strengthening and emboldening of these militant groups.” He said that in the 2008 election, the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa voted for the ANP and the JUI-F to bring peace in the area, and they must make concrete efforts to end militancy.

Civil society organizations have their own reservations. When the ANP was organizing the conference in Islamabad, TTP militants killed nearly 20 innocent people in Bannu and Hangu districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On the very next day, they carried out a failed attempt to assassinate Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Amir Haider Hoti in Mardan. “It indicates the Taliban are not interested in peace talks and our politicians are just trying to appease them,” said a Peshawar-based civil society activist. He said Taliban leaders enforce their demands, but the government fails to do the same.