Pakistan is giving the Taliban one final chance to come to the negotiating table and forge a peace deal despite a vicious wave of violence and growing demands for a military offensive.
The Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told parliament that he was setting up a committee of four people to pursue talks with the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban in an effort to secure a ceasefire and, if possible, a lasting deal.
“We want to give peace another chance by forgetting the bitter experience of the past,” Mr Sharif told politicians. He was clear, however, that terrorist attacks would have to stop if negotiations are to succeed. “Talks and terrorism cannot go side by side,” he said.
Soon after the speech, the Pakistani Taliban said they welcomed Mr Sharif’s offer of talks. Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman, told local media that the militant group’s council would make the final decision, and a spokesman for the affiliated Punjabi Taliban said he also welcomed negotiations.
Since coming to power last June, Mr Sharif has been advocating talks with the Taliban as the preferred means of ending the near-daily terrorist attacks that Pakistan suffers. With a calmer law and order situation, he hopes to rouse the country’s torpid economy and pursue his pro-business agenda.
But a spate of deadly attacks over the past two months has dimmed prospects for any accommodation. The attacks have claimed the deaths of schoolchildren, members of the long-suffering Hazara community in Baluchistan, polio workers, Shia notables, devotees of Sufi shrines, a fabled Karachi policeman, and many soldiers from the Pakistan army.
While the army has responded forcefully to the attacks on troops stationed in Bannu in the north-west and an attack near its headquarters in Rawalpindi, over the past week the military’s leadership has met Mr Sharif to discuss a broader military offensive that would strike the Taliban in its North Waziristan base.
Today, several politicians from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party signalled that preparations were under way for a sweeping offensive in the area. North Waziristan is the one tribal area, out of a total of seven, that the Pakistan army has not touched.
Notorious as “the world’s most dangerous place”, North Waziristan is a hornets’ nest of militant groups, including al-Qa’ida, Afghan insurgents, anti-Shia militants, and Central Asian fighters. In 2010, the Pakistan army had been gearing up for an offensive there, but the then army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani baulked at the prospect of a campaign the following year.
Mr Sharif’s reluctance to confront the Taliban is seen as emblematic of a mostly cloistered prime minister and a generally indecisive government. “Unless Nawaz Sharif really changes his attitude,” said Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general-turned-analyst, “it’s quite possible that the country might implode.
“The army is very angry,” added Mr Masood. The government’s chosen policy of not confronting the Taliban, and leaving troops vulnerable to their attacks, amounted to “tying the army’s hands behind their backs”, he said.
The army is also wary of the Taliban’s new leader, Mullah Fazlullah, whom it fought in the Swat Valley in 2009 and who has since spent much time skulking in Afghanistan. The army accuses elements in the Afghan administration of having protected one of their most-wanted enemies.
Dawn newspaper reported that the civilian and military leaderships had agreed last week to take on the Taliban. The sudden about-face appears to reflect fears of the potential fallout from any sweeping offensive and a lack of consensus.
A military offensive against the Taliban in North Waziristan is likely to provoke a wave of revenge bombings that could strike deep inside Pakistan’s territory to include major cities. In recent years, the Taliban have established footholds in Karachi, the megalopolis on the Arabian Sea that is also the commercial capital.
Another problem is that key opposition politicians such as the former cricket legend Imran Khan won’t back a military offensive. Speaking in parliament this week, Mr Khan blamed previous military operations for triggering greater waves of violence. Criticised for being “too soft” on the Taliban, he insists talks are the only way forward.
Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party governs the north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that abuts the tribal areas along the Afghan border. It is also the area where the bulk of the Taliban’s attacks has taken place, including an attempted suicide bombing in December at a school of mostly Shia students in Hangu district that was thwarted by the heroism of Aitzaz Hassan, a 15-year-old boy, who tackled the attacker.
At the same time, the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s son and heir has spoken vociferously against the Taliban threats and politicians he accuses of “appeasing” the militants.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 25-year-old leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, urged Mr Sharif to act like Winston Churchill and not Neville Chamberlain. Mr Bhutto Zardari has carved out a role as the Taliban’s fiercest opponent.
In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, he said: “We would like to eradicate the Taliban from Pakistan.” This weekend he is opening the Sindh Festival at the ruins of Mohenjo Daro, one of the world’s oldest urban settlements. The aim of the festival, Mr Bhutto Zardari said, is to revive Pakistan’s tolerant Sufi traditions as a counterpoint to the Taliban’s nihilistic vision.
The four men Mr Sharif has chosen to negotiate with the Taliban include two senior journalists, including Rahimullah Yusufzai, an authority on militancy in the region, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, and a former army major who is said to know Mullah Fazlullah well.
The committee’s first challenge will be securing a ceasefire, something the Taliban did not seem open to as they proudly claimed responsibility for an attack on security forces in Karachi that killed three people.