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ISLAMABAD: Apparently, the chances of direct talks between the newly elected government and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have just vanished after the Taliban withdrew their offer of talks in the wake of the killing of one of their leaders in a recent drone attack.
Political insiders say that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is seriously trying to woo the Taliban leadership back into the negotiation process which could ultimately lead the two sides onto the arbitration table.
The strong condemnation of latest drone attack on last Friday by the Sharif government was just intended to convey this message to the Taliban leadership that his government was neither party, nor complacent in the continued campaign of drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal areas.
Experts and political allies of the government say that Sharif government’s first strong reaction against the latest drone attack in tribal areas was aimed at achieving a definite objective: to woo Taliban back into dialogue process, which has been completely discontinued in the wake of killing of Taliban’s second in command, Waliur Rehman Mehsud in a drone attack later last month.
PM Sharif’s adviser Tariq Fatemi, acting on the premier's instructions, summoned US Embassy’s Charge D'Affaires Richard Hoagland to the Foreign Office a day after the latest attack and protested that the drone attack campaign was completely unacceptable.
The same day, PM Sharif himself conveyed the same message to the visiting German foreign minister, who called on him in Islamabad.
“Drone attacks must stop. We have protested many a time. This is simply unacceptable,” he commented in a meeting with German Foreign Minister Dr Guldo Westerwelle.
Early in the day, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam – Fazl (JUI-F) chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman met the premier and advised him that he must publicly distance his government from the drone attacks if he wants to woo Taliban back into the process that could lead to direct talks between government and the tribal areas-based militant organisation, JUI official spokesman Jan Muhammad Achakzai told Dawn.com.
Pakistani Taliban have withdrawn their offer of talks with the government following the drone attack that killed their deputy chief, Waliur Rehman Mehsud, saying that the Pakistan government and the military are party to these drone attacks that are primarily carried out by American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
“Yesterday (Saturday) Maulana Sahib met the prime minister and conveyed to him that he must do two things if he wants Taliban on the negotiating table: he must publicly distance his government from the drone attack, which means that strong condemnation must be followed by the threat to downgrade relations with Washington” Jan Muhammad Achakzai told Dawn.com.
“Secondly, he (the PM) must convince the military establishment that the talks with Taliban have to take place,” he further said.
He told Dawn.com that Maulana Fazlur Rehman told the PM that his government’s reaction to drone attacks has to be perceived by the Taliban in tribal areas to be different from the reaction showed by previous PPP-led government towards to drone campaign in tribal areas.
“PPP appeared to be complacent. Once, the then PM Gilani said that his government has no problem with the drone attacks and similarly, Sherry Rehman was also quoted by the media to have said that the government doesn’t have any problem with the drone attacks,” said Jan Muhammad Achakzai.
“Now this government’s reaction has to be different if Taliban has to be brought to the negotiating table,” Achakzai added.
The only problem, which makes the whole situation implausible, is that the JUI-F is not ready to admit that they are in direct contact with the Taliban. At least publicly, they are maintaining the position that they don’t communicate directly with Taliban.
“We don’t have any direct contact with Taliban” said Jan Muhammad Achakzai, the official spokesman of JUI-F.
However, both the serving and retired military officials told Dawn.com that JUI-F’s extensive network in the tribal areas and contact with Taliban ranks is a matter of routine.
In the past, JUI-F has acted as a mediator between Taliban and the Pakistan army in many of the peace agreements that the two signed over the years in tribal areas.
JUI-F's problem is that it cannot openly admit to having direct links with the Taliban, while the militants continue to play havoc in country’s urban areas. At the same time, they cannot appear to be convincing if they take the position that they are not in contact with the Taliban.
“Yet, Maulana Fazlur Rehman is said to have told Nawaz Sharif that in order to look credible in the eyes of Taliban, the government will have to back the protest over drones with the readiness to downgrade its ties with Washington” said a security expert on the condition of anonymity.
Interestingly, the other JUI faction led by Maulana Samiul-Haq maintains the same position that they are not in contact with Taliban. However its spokesman, Maulana Yousaf Shah told Dawn.com that it was not at all difficult for them to contact the Taliban leadership.
“After all they (Taliban) don’t live in Palestine…they live in Waziristan in Miranshah, we can just go and talk to them” said Maulana Yousaf Shah, official spokesman of JUI-S, while talking to Dawn.com.
However, the JUI-F party officials admit that they have an indirect contact with Taliban through intermediaries and it was after talking to these intermediaries that they gathered the impression that the new government must distance itself publicly from the drone attacks if they want to bring Taliban to the negotiating table.
“First of all, let me tell you that Waliur Rehman Mehsud wanted to initiate talks with the government,” said Jan Achakzai.
“Prior to his killing, we were getting positive vibes from the Taliban ranks that they wanted to initiate talks with the government…This suddenly stopped following the drone attacks…now there is a hardening of attitude in Taliban ranks,” Achakzai added.
However, some independent security experts really doubt the ability of these religious parties to effectively influence the behaviour of Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
For instance, security analyst Brigadier (retd) Mahmud Shah told Dawn.com that in the past, the JUI-F leaders have acted as mediators between army and tribal militants.
“But those talks failed primarily because JUI-F men created further misunderstandings in the mediating process than facility the talks” said Brigadier (retd) Mahmud Shah.
“In 2004, talks with the militant commander Nek Mohammad failed primarily because one thing was conveyed to army and a different thing was conveyed to the militant commander, which led to chaotic conditions during the talks,” said Brigadier (retd) Shah, who was the secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (Fata) then.