Pakistan to open preliminary talks with Taliban

Militant group behind insurgency that has killed 45,000

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In its most ambitious step yet to address Pakistan’s most potent domestic threat, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government plans to hold preliminary talks today with representatives of the Pakistani Taliban.

The meeting is described as an introductory chat with the Islamic militant group, which is responsible for a decade-long insurgency that has claimed more than 45,000 lives. If the talks are not successful, Sharif has signaled that he may order a military offensive to regain control of tribal areas that are effectively under Taliban control.

Representatives from both camps confirmed today’s meeting. But many analysts doubt that a peace deal can be reached, citing the insurgent group’s violent history, decentralized command structure and harsh ideology.

Some Pakistani Taliban officials have circulated 10 demands they want to pursue in the talks, including a ban on women appearing in public in jeans or without headscarves, the release of all Taliban prisoners, immunity for the group’s commanders, establishment of Islamic courts, a complete withdrawal of the Pakistan army from tribal areas and compensation for the victims of U.S. drone strikes.

The list has shocked Pakistan’s political and cultural elite.

“If this is true, it will not be acceptable to very many people in Pakistan,” Khalid Naeem Lodhi, a former Pakistan army major general, said of the demands.

The Taliban is increasingly splintered, and the group’s chief spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said any information about demands is premature.

“We have not yet put forward any conditions or demands for the talks,” Shahid said in a phone interview. “If there is a list of demands in the media, that is not ours but may be someone else’s.”

Major priority

Sharif, who returned as prime minister in June after two previous stints in the office in the 1990s, has made a negotiated settlement with the Pakistani Taliban a chief priority.

The Pakistani Taliban formed in 2008 in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The group claims to be independent of the Afghan Taliban, but they are believed to coordinate activities. Both Taliban organizations seek to replace their governments.

Although Pakistan’s major political parties gave Sharif broad support last summer to engage in talks, Sharif has struggled to convince Taliban representatives to participate.

Over the past four months, the Taliban has taken credit for a series of attacks that have killed hundreds of people. In one incident last month, 20 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing in North Waziristan. The military responded with airstrikes that killed 40 militants and foreign fighters and caused thousands of residents to flee their homes.

Many analysts saw the bombardment as a sign that Sharif and Pakistan’s new army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, were preparing to launch a major offensive. Instead, Sharif announced last week he was appointing a four-member delegation to make one final push at peace talks.

This time, Taliban leaders have appeared more receptive to talks. They have appointed three representatives for the talks, including Maulana Samiul Haq, a top religious leader who is the founder of the conservative Jamiatul Ulema Islami party.

Analysts caution, however, that Sharif’s government may not have much leeway to bargain with the Taliban. Although Pakistan’s constitution is rooted in Islamic principles and law, it also includes provisions guaranteeing the rights of women and minorities.

Efforts to ban women from wearing jeans in public would likely run afoul of those principles, said Khalil ur-Rehman Khan, a former Supreme Court justice.

Though it’s rare for women to wear jeans in rural parts of the country, it’s becoming more common to see young urban women wear them in public.

“Under Islam, you have to dress in a way that is not profane, or abusive, but that choice is given, and it’s based on how society accepts you,” Khan said. “And the culture of society changes with the passage of time, more education.”

Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based defense analyst, said Sharif would also run into resistance from military leaders if he agreed to any prisoner release. Many military leaders are still angered that Taliban commanders freed under previous peace initiatives have returned to the battlefield, he said.

“There have been several peace deals with the Taliban, and none of them have worked, and I don’t think things have diametrically changed,” Hussain said.