Momentum Grows For Pakistan-Taliban Peace Talks

Both sides say they're ready to talk, but the Taliban is putting stiff conditions on any negotiations. All previous attempts at a peace deal have failed. Analysts say the Pakistani government lacks a coordinated strategy.

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In Pakistan, scores of people were killed and even more injured as they shopped in a neighborhood market over the weekend. A group that is linked to the Taliban - a group that is also one the most ruthless Sunni sectarian groups - claimed responsibility for that attack. The attacks come as Pakistan prepares for elections this spring.

Also on the table: another round of peace talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban. All past deals have failed.

From Islamabad, NPR's Jackie Northam reports that it's difficult to say whether this one stands a better chance of success.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The offer to start peace talks this time around came from the largest Taliban faction, known as the TTP: the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Last December, the militant group sent a letter to a local newspaper here in Islamabad laying out conditions for a ceasefire that included cutting Pakistan's ties with the U.S. and imposing strict Islamic law in the country.

That offer was rejected outright as it came amid a wave of high-profile killings of security forces and politicians by the Taliban. But the TTP recently came back with another peace offer, though with many of the same conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV INTERVIEW)

EHSANULLAH EHSAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NORTHAM: In a television interview, Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said his group hoped the government would respond positively to the new offer. But he said if Pakistan's government is interested, it should release seven senior Taliban prisoners as a sign of good faith.

Last week, Pakistan's government said it is ready to hold talks with the militants. That brought a sharp rebuke from Qazi Javed Ashraf, a former chief of Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency. He said the government's stand is shortsighted, because the Taliban has never offered to lay down its arms.

QAZI JAVED ASHRAF: They are the people who have revolted against the government, they are people who are rebels. They have picked up arms and they've slaughtered people. After all these 40,000 lives that they have taken, they are barbaric animals. They should not be treated as equals, especially when they refuse to disarm.

NORTHAM: Ashraf says the Taliban can't be trusted to follow through on any deal. He says just look at the TTP's track record when it comes to previous agreements.

ASHRAF: TTP is playing the same game as they did earlier. We've had six or seven agreements with them. Every time we talked, we landed up as losers in the bargain. We lost a lot.

NORTHAM: Saleem Safi, an analyst with Geo News, believes the Taliban is serious this time, but he says he doesn't give another round of peace talks much chance of success. Safi says despite the government's offer to talk, it's done little to further the process. He says the government and the military - which ultimately decide matters of security here in Pakistan - lack a clear strategy for dealing with the Taliban offer.

SALEEM SAFI: We are observing only confusion. We are not seeing any coordinated efforts or any coordinated approach toward this offer. I think they're in a mood of wait-and-see nowadays.

NORTHAM: Analysts here say the Taliban is feeling pressure from U.S. drone attacks and Pakistan army operations, and that initiating peace negotiations may give the militants some breathing room to regroup and rebuild.

Bushra Gohar, with the secular Awami National Party, sees the Taliban's offer as a desperate move. Her party has been a target of the Taliban, and Bashir Bilour, one of its most senior members, was killed by militants in December.

Still, Gohar says the Awami National Party, or ANP, is one of the most vocal supporters of peace talks with the militants. The country, she says, can't tolerate any more violence.

BUSHRA GOHAR: Even though our own leader was also targeted, nearly all our top leaders are on their target lists, we say that we have to deal with this issue because it is not just a threat to the ANP. It is a threat to the country.

NORTHAM: Gohar says it's important to hammer out a peace deal quickly, to help prevent violence in the run-up to Pakistan's parliamentary elections, which are due to be held this spring.

The Taliban has warned it will attack political parties taking part in the election if there's no peace deal.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad.

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