KARACHI, Pakistan — The Pakistani Taliban announced Tuesday that they have accepted a government offer to hold unconditional talks about ending a six-year insurgency, but the move comes amid national public revulsion at a two-week wave of bombing attacks that has killed 300 people.
The spokesman of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the official name of the Pakistani Taliban, said they would declare a cease-fire if the military also suspended operations against it in the northwest tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan, where 150,000 troops are currently deployed.
The decision to accept the government’s offer was taken at a conference of militant faction leaders in the North Waziristan tribal area, said the spokesman, who goes by the pseudonym Shahidullah Shahid.
It followed an appeal by Pakistan’s top religious scholars of the Deobandi sect of Sunni Muslims, a conservative mainstream sect based in India whose seminaries were the indoctrination centers for thousands of Pakistanis trained to fight Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and for the Taliban when it emerged in the 1990s.
The government peace proposal received approval from the country’s political parties at a September conference in the capital, Islamabad. But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, infuriated by the recent wave of terrorist strikes, threatened to rescinded the offer, calling the Taliban “enemies of Pakistan” and apostates.
That rejection and the revulsion that has swept Pakistan over the terrorist bombings apparently moved the Taliban to reconsider its actions. After originally claiming responsibility for the first attack, the bombing of a church in Peshawar at the end of Sunday morning Mass that killed more than 80 parishioners, the Taliban now are saying they had nothing to do with the attack – or any of the others that followed it.
The Pakistani news media, which had supported Sharif’s decision to offer unconditional talks to the Taliban, have rejected the militants’ disclaimers as a duplicitous ploy.
The militants’ conference where the decision to attend the talks was made was attended by leaders of major Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan factions, including the group’s nominal chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, and Asmatullah Muaviain, the leader of the so-called Punjabi Taliban faction. Muaviain had already publicly announced his acceptance of talks, to the chagrin of Mehsud and other hardliners.
Significantly, however, the meeting was chaired by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operations chief of the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based Afghan faction that is allied with the Taliban but is also a longstanding strategic partner of the Pakistani military and its influential Inter Services Intelligence directorate.
The Haqqanis and the Pakistani military have been strategic partners since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The network has been key in organizing previous cease-fires between the Pakistani military and militant groups.
An agreement with a Haqqani sub-group known as the Mullah Nazir faction was a major factor in the military’s retaking of South Waziristan in 2009, which was then the stronghold of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. The military was able to recapture the area after the Mullah Nazir faction withdrew.
A similar arrangement in North Waziristan would isolate the Taliban, leaving them vulnerable to an army offensive.
The Haqqani Network has staged many high-profile guerrilla raids and suicide attacks on government and U.S. military targets in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, raising tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan, which has rebuffed repeated U.S. demands that it take military action against the network.
The Haqqani Network has been a primary target of CIA drone attacks, which have killed at least three brothers of Sirajuddin Haqqani since 2008. The militant leader key to the military’s seizure of South Waziristan, Mullah Nazir, also died in a drone strike last year.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.