Church Slaughter May Derail Sharif Talks as Pakistan Bleeds

Zahid Khan advocated talks with Taliban militants in 2009 to stem a barrage of terror attacks in the northwest Pakistan province where his party led the ruling coalition. Now he sees negotiations as a waste of time.

“Our experience tells us that the dialogue route won’t take us anywhere,” said Khan, whose Awami National Party reached an agreement with Taliban militants in 2009 that fell apart after two months. “Ultimately, the government will have to use force.”

Khan’s skepticism about the renewed push for talks by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was underscored by a suicide attack this week at a Christian church that killed 81 people, including women and children. Sharif, who took office three months ago, confronts the challenge of engaging militant groups that have a variety of ideologies and agendas -- a contrast with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has a clear leader and spokesmen who e-mail statements and claim responsibility for attacks on Twitter.

Pakistan’s array of militants includes homegrown Taliban, Sunni fighters, India foes, foreigners battling against the U.S. and dozens of others who often disagree on tactics and sometimes fight each other. They have killed more than 1,200 civilians, soldiers and police this year in more than 800 incidents, including 85 suicide and bomb attacks.

2009 Collapse

“There are about 37 groups operating in our area,” Khan, whose party lost power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province during May elections, said by phone. “My question is which ones will you pick to speak with and which ones will you leave?”

The 2009 agreement that Khan’s party negotiated called for an end to fighting in Swat valley in return for placing the region under Shariah law. It collapsed when insurgents started to expand their influence in neighboring districts in violation of the agreement, leading to an army offensive that forced local commanders to flee to Afghanistan.

“If a miracle happens and there is an agreement, implementing that agreement would be a big challenge,” said Rahimullah Yousufzai, a Peshawar-based analyst who researches tribal militant groups. “I don’t foresee peace coming to this land through peace talks.”

Sharif Regret

Sharif’s party swept to power in May elections after a campaign in which he pledged talks with militants to end violence that has destabilized the nuclear-armed nation of 193 million people. Earlier this month, the country’s political leaders authorized Sharif to approach militants for talks, a consensus now at risk after the Sept. 22 church bombing in Peshawar and the assassination of a major-general a week earlier.

“It’s a matter of regret that the thinking, the wish which the government had, is unable to move forward,” Sharif told reporters the same day during a stop in London as he headed to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Cricket legend Imran Khan, whose party now governs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after winning May elections in the region, continued to push for talks with militants.

“I don’t think we should give up efforts to find those groups who want to talk,” he said after visiting the wounded at a Peshawar hospital on Sept. 22. “We need to know who wants to talk.”

Taliban Denial

The Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, formed in 2007 to fight the country’s military in tribal areas in the northwest, impose Islamic law and expel U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. Pakistan blames the group for most of the country’s terrorist attacks, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, it said.

The group denied that one of its offshoots, Jundul Hafsa, carried out the church attack as was reported in the Pakistani media, The News reported today, citing a spokesman it didn’t identify. It blamed the attack on Jundullah, another militant group in the area, the report said.

“The army has the ability to take the fight to the terrorists,” Army General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said in a statement on Sept. 16 after the major-general was killed. While reaffirming support for the political process, Kayani said he would not let terrorists “coerce us into accepting their terms.”

Afghanistan Taliban

Afghanistan’s Taliban will only fight coalition forces in the country and will refuse to join any campaign against Pakistan’s government and military, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said by phone.

“We take orders from our sole leader,” he said, referring to Mullah Mohammad Omar. “We don’t want to be with Pakistani Taliban and do jihad in their country.”

The Pakistani Taliban withdrew an offer for talks earlier this year after a U.S. drone aircraft on May 29 killed the group’s No. 2 commander, the Dawn newspaper reported May 31, citing Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the group. The U.S. has killed 99 people in 21 drone strikes this year, compared with 300 deaths in 46 strikes last year, according to the Long War Journal, a website that monitors conflicts in the region.

While negotiations will take time, a breakthrough is possible as most U.S. troops leave Afghanistan and militant groups split over tactics, according to Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s top spying agency. Most of the groups that form the Pakistan Taliban are in favor of talks apart from Fazlullah, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, al Qaeda and a few others, he said.

‘Decisive Action’

“There are only five, six groups who are opposing talks with the government, otherwise all others are prepared for it,” Gul said by phone. “Even if these groups are isolated, it will be a big thing.”

Pakistan’s leading political parties appear divided over how to make that happen as attacks continue. Militants in Mohmand, a tribal region near the Afghan border, last night killed three people at a dam site with a roadside bomb and kidnapped two others, Arshad Khan, an official with the region’s top administrator, said by phone.

“We believe in decisive action against extremist elements because we believe extremism is one of the biggest threats that the country is facing,” said Nasir Jamal, a senior official at Muttahida Quami Movement, the fourth-largest political party in the National Assembly, which had supported Sharif’s peace efforts. “People should think again whether negotiation is a viable option.”

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