ISLAMABAD – Negotiators for Pakistan’s government and the Taliban called Thursday for a cease-fire after holding the first round of talks aimed at ending the militants’ bloody seven-year insurgency.
The two sides gathered in Islamabad for a preliminary meeting that lasted more than three hours to chart a road map for future discussions. The talks were held despite deep skepticism over whether dialogue can yield a lasting peace deal.
Reading from a joint statement following the talks, Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, said his side agreed with a government demand that “there should be no activity by either side which can potentially harm the peace efforts.”
Irfan Siddiqui, his government counterpart, hailed the meeting — the first ever formal dialogue between the two sides — saying that the Taliban committee had “responded to us beyond our expectations.”
The breakthrough came after an abortive start to the talks Tuesday, which were called off when the government cited doubts over the Taliban negotiating team.
“We are really happy that the Taliban committee has responded to us beyond our expectations and they have heard our reservations and told us their reservations with an open heart,” Siddiqui told reporters.
“We share the common goal of making this country peaceful in accordance with Islamic teaching. And I thank the Taliban committee for meeting us,” Siddiqui added.
Haq said his team would hold discussions with the Taliban leadership and a second round of talks would be held after they had responded.
Underlining the fragile security situation, a suicide bomber killed eight people Tuesday in a sectarian attack against minority Shiite Muslims in the northwestern city of Peshawar, just hours after the abortive start to the talks.
The main Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman denied they were behind the blast but a commander for the group in Peshawar told AFP his men were responsible, saying no ceasefire had been announced.
The TTP has killed thousands of people in gun and bomb attacks across the nuclear-armed state since it launched its campaign in 2007.
The start of the year has seen a surge in militant violence with more than 110 people killed, and an air force bombardment of TTP hideouts in North Waziristan fueled speculation that a major military offensive was imminent.
There is talk of splits within the TTP, a fractious coalition of militant groups, with some rumored to oppose the whole idea of negotiations.
Saifullah Khan Mehsud, director of the FATA Research Center, said this made it difficult to achieve even a cease-fire as a first step.
“I don’t know if the Taliban are on the same page and which groups that these negotiators are representing, so I don’t know if they can guarantee a cease-fire at all,” he said.
Stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan is seen as important to neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S.-led NATO troops are pulling out after more than a decade of war.
Washington has said it is watching the talks closely. It has long been pushing Pakistan to take action against militants using Pakistan’s tribal areas as a base to attack NATO forces across the border.
Observers have held out scant hope for the talks, saying there appears to be little common ground and warning of what the government might be forced to concede.
One of the TTP’s negotiating team, Maulana Abdul Aziz, told AFP on Wednesday there was no chance of peace unless the government agreed to the imposition of Islamic sharia law throughout Pakistan.
The Taliban also want U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.
The government has insisted that Pakistan’s constitution must remain paramount, but security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa warned they may find themselves forced to give ground.
“I look at history and see that every time the non-religious leadership has tried to do some appeasement Pakistan has slipped deeper into theocracy and this is one such moment,” she said. “We are already a hybrid theocracy and we are heading towards more theocracy.”
Local peace deals with the militants in the past have quickly fallen apart.
A famous 2008 peace deal in the Swat Valley resulted in the Taliban taking control of the region.
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.