ISLAMABAD: Negotiators representing Taliban insurgents said Wednesday that there was no chance of peace in Pakistan until the government embraced Shariah law and U.S.-led forces withdrew completely from neighboring Afghanistan.
The tough conditions appear to deal a blow to hopes that talks with the Pakistani government could end the Tehreek-e- Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgency that has rocked the nuclear-armed country since 2007.
Initial peace talks failed to get underway Tuesday when the government delegation refused to meet the militants’ negotiators, citing confusion about the makeup of their team.
The two sides are expected to try to meet again Thursday or Friday, though no definite arrangements have yet been made.
Washington and Kabul have been deadlocked over a pact known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, which would allow some U.S. troops to stay on in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign it at present.
Its supporters say the pact is crucial to Afghanistan’s stability after the bulk of NATO forces pull out.
But Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the head of the TTP’s three-man talks team, told AFP there could be “no peace” in the region while there were still U.S. troops across the border.
His comments were echoed by his fellow TTP negotiator Maulana Abdul Aziz, who also said the TTP’s long-held commitment to impose Shariah law across Pakistan was not open to debate.
“Without Shariah law, the Taliban won’t accept [the talks] even 1 percent,” he told AFP.
“If some factions accept it, then the others won’t accept it.”
The government has insisted that Pakistan’s constitution must remain paramount. Given the gulf between the two sides, there has been skepticism about what the talks can achieve. Local peace deals with the militants in the past have quickly fallen apart.
“Their real agenda is Shariah,” Aziz said, suggesting that all Pakistan’s secular courts based on the common law system be abolished.
“I don’t think the government will accept this, but they should, because war isn’t the way forward.”
Government efforts to start peace talks last year came to an abrupt halt in November with the killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s announcement last week that he wanted to give peace talks another try caught many observers by surprise.
The start of the year has seen a surge in militant violence, with more than 110 people killed, and many had expected the military to launch an offensive against TTP strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
On Afghanistan, Aziz said an endorsement of the security pact with Washington would scupper hopes for regional peace.
“We think these [ Afghanistan and Pakistan] are two brotherly countries. Peace in Pakistan means peace in Afghanistan and vice versa,” he said.
If Afghanistan signs the agreement, he said, “war will continue, and the clash between Muslims and the U.S. will continue.”
“If the agreement goes ahead, then the losses they [U.S.] have experienced before, they will experience once again,” he added.
The TTP has some links to the Afghan Taliban and pledge allegiance to their supreme leader Mullah Omar.
But while the Afghan Taliban’s fight is focused on Karzai’s government and NATO backers, the TTP’s main target is the Pakistani state.
Haq, the head of the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania seminary that counts Mullah Omar as a graduate, said: “If Americans remain in Afghanistan, there will be no peace in the region, it will be same, it will be unsafe.”
Underlining the parlous security situation in Pakistan, eight people were killed in a suicide bombing targeting minority Shiites in the northwestern city of Peshawar Tuesday.
Mufti Hassan Swati, the head of the TTP’s Peshawar wing, claimed the attack, though the group’s central spokesman Shahidullah Shahid earlier denied it.
Asked why they attacked while talks were ongoing, Swati said: “The peace talks are underway but there is no cease-fire. We will continue attacks until a cease-fire is announced.”
Islamabad reacted furiously to the killing of Mehsud last November, accusing Washington of torpedoing peace efforts.
There have been only three drone attacks in Pakistan since and none in January, the first calendar month without a strike in two years, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.