ISLAMABAD, Oct 31: An under-fire Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan insisted on Thursday that the government was in contact with the Taliban and would soon start ‘structured and formal’ talks with them in line with a decision taken by an all-party conference on Sept 9.

At a meeting with heads of parliamentary parties, Mr Khan, however, could only confirm off-the-record communication with the militants, suggesting the government has nothing concrete on the issue of talks to share.

Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khurshid Shah, Shah Mehmood Qureshi of the PTI, Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain of the PML-Q, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri of the JUI-F, Sheikh Rashid, Ijazul Haq and Aftab Sherpao attended the meeting.

A participant of the meeting told Dawn that “throughout the briefing it appeared that Chaudhry Nisar was narrating a story which has imaginary characters. So far there is no development on ground which the minister can talk about”.

He said Information Minister Pervez Rashid had already said several times that the government was in contact with the Taliban.

According to the participant, the minister was asked whether the US administration supported the government on the proposed talks with Pakistani Taliban. Mr Khan told the meeting that the Americans were keeping silent.

About the venue of talks, the interior minister told the meeting that the government had left the issue to intermediaries, who included religious and political leadership of the country.

Mr Khan told the meeting that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif raised the issue of drone strikes during his interaction with President Barack Obama and the government could only hope that the US administration would listen to ‘us’. On Wednesday, a drone attack was reported from tribal areas.

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has been the target of the opposition’s opprobrium in the Senate for the past two days for giving wrong information to them on the killings by drone attacks.

Opposition parties, which hold a majority in the upper house, have asked Mr Khan to formally take back his wrong answer.

Syed Khurshid Shah later told reporters: “We are told the government is in contact with the Taliban through backchannels.”

He said Chaudhry Nisar was grilled at the meeting for the government’s snail-paced approach towards talks.

The interior minister, however, argued that soon after the APC the killing of GOC Swat along with a colonel, bombing of a church and Qissa Khwani Bazar in Peshawar caused the delay.

The leader of opposition said the meeting was told that the government had identified 37 major factions running under the banner of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which has further 57 smaller groups. “But the minister confirmed that talks with the TTP will be held within the constitution and law of the land,” said Mr Shah.

The TTP has declared more than once that it did not accept the constitution of Pakistan and would not accept any conditions for talks. Only time will tell how the government will convince the TTP to accept writ of the state – the constitution.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi said “the opposition parties have demanded of the government that the talks should be well structured and formal”. Reiterating the PTI’s stance, he said dialogue was the only way out and today “we once again mandated the government to complete the task decided by the APC”.

He said not only the PTI but other political parties also supported talks with the Taliban and asked the political leadership to face difficulties in the process with patience.

Mr Qureshi said the interior minister had promised to keep opposition parties posted about developments in the talks.

Dr Farooq Sattar reiterated the MQM’s support for talks.

Ijazul Haq said: “I am happy to attend the meeting and hope talks with the TTP will turn out to be successful.” Mr Haq, who was not invited to the APC, said he had no reason to doubt that the military leadership was fully on board, terming it a positive sign.

There are many who still believe that a decision on talks or no talks would be taken after the appointment of the new army chief after General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s retirement on Nov 28.

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