DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — Government intermediaries have held talks with the Pakistani Taliban in recent months exploring ways to jump-start peace negotiations, intelligence officials and a senior militant commander said.
A peace deal between the authorities and the Pakistani Taliban could represent the best hope of ending years of fighting that has killed thousands of security personnel and civilians.
But it is unclear whether the preliminary talks will gain traction or if the Pakistani Taliban are unified enough to actually strike a deal. It is also uncertain whether a deal could last.
The government has cut peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban in the past, but none of them have held. The agreements have been criticized for allowing the militants to regroup and rebuild their strength to resume fighting the government and foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Talk of a new peace deal could be troubling to the United States if it is seen as providing militants with greater space to carry out operations in neighboring Afghanistan. However, Washington’s push for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban could make it difficult to oppose an agreement in Pakistan.
The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are allies but have focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border.
The government delegations that held preliminary talks with the Pakistani Taliban over roughly the past six months have included former civilian and military officials and tribal elders, the intelligence officials and a senior militant commander said in recent interviews with The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
As a confidence building measure, the Pakistani Taliban released five officials from the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency who were kidnapped in Baluchistan province, the officials and the commander said in the interviews.
The Pakistani Taliban’s top demand is that the army pull out of the South Waziristan tribal area, which served as the group’s main sanctuary before a large military offensive in 2009, said the commander, who is close to Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
The army could be replaced by the paramilitary Frontier Corps, but the militants have demanded that only local police conduct patrols. They also want the government to pay compensation for damages incurred during the South Waziristan operation, free Pakistani Taliban prisoners and allow the group’s leaders to move freely throughout the country.
According to the intelligence officials and the militants, the Pakistani Taliban’s leadership council held a meeting in mid-September in which they came up with these demands. They also authorized the group’s deputy leader, Maulana Waliur Rehman, to hold talks with the government regarding South Waziristan and other tribal areas.
On Saturday, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman told the AP the group has added another demand — that the government cut ties with the United States if it wants to make peace with the militants.
"Do it and we are brothers, but if not, our war against the government will go on," said spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.
Some analysts have argued that the Pakistani Taliban has splintered into so many different groups that it might be difficult for the leadership in South Waziristan to agree to a comprehensive peace deal.
The government held a meeting of all major political parties at the end of September in which they agreed that the government must attempt to start peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban. But it is unclear what conditions the government and, more importantly, the powerful military would agree to.
The military has conducted a series of offensives against the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s semiautonomous tribal region along the Afghan border over the past few years.
For their part, military officials have said they have not held any recent peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.