Pakistan peace talks with Taliban militants will probably fail and an ensuing military operation would lead to more terrorism, according to Imran Khan, head of the party that runs a province bordering Afghanistan.
Negotiators representing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan -- known as the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP -- called for a cease-fire yesterday after starting formal talks for the first time to end violence the government says has killed 40,000 Pakistanis since 2001. The TTP had named Khan as a negotiator, a post he turned down.
“The most likely result is that the negotiations will start, there will be about three or four big explosions and terrorist attacks and the negotiations will be called off,” Khan, a former cricket star and a vocal advocate of peace talks, said in an interview yesterday at his villa in the hills of Islamabad. “There will be people baying for blood and the operation will start.”
Khan’s pessimism signals further instability in Pakistan, which would threaten Sharif’s efforts to revive the $225 billion economy as the U.S. prepares to draw down troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Khan blocked NATO supply routes to Kabul in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region where his party holds power to protest American drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and called for the U.S. to publicly announce an end to the aerial attacks.
“If the U.S. stops drone attacks, announces stopping the drone attacks during the talks, it would be a big plus point,” said Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaf party is the third-largest in parliament. “Then the talks would become really meaningful.”
Government negotiators said talks will only focus on militancy-hit areas as Taliban representatives demanded meetings with Sharif and the army chief to discuss the peace process, according to a joint statement issued by both committees yesterday.
Sharif won an election last year after pledging negotiations with the TTP, a loose group of militants operating along the Afghan border. Shortly after Sharif received the backing of all political parties in September to begin negotiations, Taliban fighters assassinated a major-general in the Pakistani army and killed 81 Christians in a suicide bomb attack at a Peshawar church.
Pressure built on Sharif last month to start a military operation after the TTP killed more than two dozen soldiers in separate attacks, including one outside the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, a city just south of Islamabad. Sharif instead announced the formation of a committee to begin peace talks.
“We are giving one last chance for dialogue,” Ahsan Iqbal, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and a member of Sharif’s cabinet, said in a Feb. 5 interview. “If some groups or all of them are willing to give up arms and adopt peace, that’s good. But if that doesn’t happen then at least we will have greater unity in the country to deal with them through security means.”
Khan said the U.S. sabotaged an earlier effort at talks with a Nov. 1 drone attack that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP’s leader who was due to start talks with the government in the ensuing days. The Obama administration has curtailed drone strikes as it makes progress against “core al-Qaeda,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
“The U.S. doesn’t want there to be peace talks here or peace in Pakistan while they are leaving Afghanistan,” Khan said. “The thinking is that if they are engaged here, they would not be going across to fight.”
The U.S. considers Pakistan’s talks with the TTP an “internal matter,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Feb. 5. “More broadly, the United States and Pakistan continue to have a vital, shared strategic interest in ending extremist violence so as to build a more prosperous, stable, and peaceful region.”
The talks yesterday between four negotiators from both the government and the TTP were productive, Irfan Siddiqui, a Sharif-appointed member, told reporters in a televised briefing. A cease-fire from both sides is important for talks to be successful, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, known as the “Father of the Taliban,” said at the joint briefing.
“I don’t see any chances of these talks succeeding,” said retired General Talat Masood, a defense analyst based in Islamabad. “There is so much divergence between what the expectations are and what their demands are, that lust for power,” he said, referring to the TTP.
Khan criticized Sharif for waiting too long after the May election to start talks with the TTP. Sharif’s negotiation team, which includes two journalists, also reflected his lack of seriousness, Khan said.
“If I was him, I would lead it myself,” Khan said of Sharif. “It’s too important an issue for Pakistan.”
Khan said the TTP had chosen him as a negotiator because they trust him to withstand U.S. pressures. The Obama administration has repeatedly urged Pakistan to take action against militants in the border area of North Waziristan that are conducting attacks in Afghanistan.
“Clearly, I don’t represent Taliban,” Khan said, adding that he disagreed with the TTP’s interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. The group will have to accept that the way to bring change in Pakistan is through elections and the nation’s constitutional process, he said, adding: “You can’t impose it through the barrel of a gun.”
Khan said the TTP’s statements revealed that the U.S. presence in the region was fueling the militants.
“We will win this war if we disengage from the U.S. war,” he said. “As long as we are thought of fighting the U.S. war, they would declare jihad on us, there would be the deadly suicide bomber. This would be a never-ending war.”
A Feb. 4 blast in the northwestern city of Peshawar that killed 8 people was evidence that saboteurs intended to derail dialogue, Khan said. Besides the U.S., he said, vested interests that are profiting from the instability and want it to continue include mafias controlling the timber and drug trade, and foreign-backed groups receiving money from abroad.
Khan said he’d hypothetically support a military operation if militants proved irreconcilable after meaningful talks. Any action he’d take would involve commandos working with people in tribal areas to root out militants instead of an open-ended campaign with artillery and air power that will kill civilians and prompt reprisals.
“It will let loose more terrorism in Pakistan,” Khan said of a potential military strike. “We would actually be much worse off than before.”