Pakistan And Taliban Come To The Negotiating Table

Pakistan's government and the Pakistani Taliban are holding a first round of peace talks in Islamabad. Expectations are low for any substantial progress toward ending what has been a particularly bloody insurgency. Some analysts believe that the Pakistani military will soon launch a major offensive against the militants in their strongholds along the border with Afghanistan.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. In Pakistan, deadly attacks by the Taliban and similar groups are so common these days the rest of the world barely notices. But the war between these militants and Pakistan's government has cost tens of thousands of lives and caused terrible economic damage. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected on a promise of trying to end the seven-year conflict by negotiating peace with the Pakistani Taliban. And those talk s have now begun.

And for more about them we're joined by NPR's correspondent in Islamabad, Philip Reeves. Philip, to start, who exactly is negotiating with whom?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, these are not direct talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani government. Both sides have nominated a small team of people to act as intermediaries. The members of these teams don't actually belong to the Taliban or to the government, except for one guy who's an advisor to the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The team nominated by the Taliban compromises two Islamic clerics and a senior figure from an Islamic religious party. And the other team includes a respected journalist known to be an expert on the tribal areas and the former intelligence agents. Now this arrangement has led both sides to question whether the other really has a mandate.

CORNISH: So how far along are they in these talks?

REEVES: Well, there's in a very preliminary stage and they got off to a faltering start. Two of the Taliban's nominees declined to take part. They kicked off two days late -- two days later than planned at any rate because of a disagreement. But then the two teams did sit down for three hours or so and they made some headway it seems, or be it limited. They emerged saying that, you know, their discussions had been cordial.

And the government's team said it laid down some conditions which include an end to all hostilities while these talks are taking place, holding the talks -- this is interesting -- within the framework of Pakistan's constitution. That's quite a big deal as militants don't accept the constitution. And also limiting the scope of these talks just to the conflict areas rather than the entire country, but that's the government's position -- its initial position.

CORNISH: So what exactly does the Taliban want to get out of this?

REEVES: Well, ultimately of course is the imposition of their fundamentalist variant of Sharia Law right across Pakistan. The government won't agree to that ever. But the militants slightly do have their eye on some more immediate goals, such as the release of hundreds of Taliban prisoners being held by the authorities. The withdrawal, for example, of Pakistani troops from areas in the mountains close to Afghanistan which the militias consider their turf.

And we can expect the government, among other things, to look for a total end to violence and the release of hostages perhaps that are held by the militants, including the son of a former prime minister.

CORNISH: Now what happens if these talks fail?

REEVES: Well, for a long time now people here have been, you know, predicting that the government will launch a big military offensive to try to crush the militants in North Waziristan, which is where they have that principle haven. That would involve conducting operations using jets and gunship helicopters and tanks. And they've done this kind of thing before and it's always exacted a heavy toll on the people who are caught up in the fighting.

And so some here believe that the government's actually expecting these talks to fail but is using them to buy time to try to consolidate public support for such military measures. There's generally a lot of skepticism here. Others argue that the Taliban aren't serious either. They're using these talks as a ploy to get publicity and to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad. Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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