Thursday, March 27, 2014

Daily Times Editorial March 28, 2014

First direct talks After toing and froing and a seesaw, hesitant beginning, not to mention the recasting of the negotiating teams on both sides, the government negotiating team has finally met face to face the Taliban shura (leadership council) in a remote village, Balandkhel, near the boundary between North Waziristan and Orakzai Agency. The government’s reconstituted team comprises former ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand, former ISI officer Major Amir (these two the survivors from the government’s earlier team), bureaucrats Arbab Arif, Habibullah Khattak and Additional Secretary to the Prime Minister Fawad Hasan Fawad. The 13-member Taliban team was headed by Qari Shakeel, a militant leader from Mohmand Agency, and included Sajjad Mohmand, Azam Tariq, Maulvi Noor Said, Maulvi Asmatullah, Maulvi Bashir and Maulvi Zakir. The talks lasted for two sessions and spanned seven hours. From the sketchy details that have emerged from this first direct interaction between the two sides, it appears that the main items discussed were the ceasefire and release of non-combatants. The Taliban side committed to observing the ceasefire so long as the dialogue continues. They conditioned the release of high profile captives with the release of their 300 women and children allegedly being held by the security forces. Interestingly, the Taliban had earlier denied holding Professor Ajmal Khan, Vice Chancellor of the Islamia College University, Peshawar, former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s son Ali Haider Gillani and slain governor Salmaan Taseer’s son Shahbaz Taseer, although they had promised to help find them. The military on the other hand is on record as denying the claim that they were holding any women and children connected to the Taliban. The Taliban side also demanded an end to the weekly patrolling by the army in North Waziristan, presumably to allow them free movement in the Agency. The government side on the other hand, demanded a permanent ceasefire, release of high profile non-combatants and identification of the outfits indulging in terrorist acts even while the talks and ceasefire were in place. Ostensibly, these respective positions and the denial by both sides of holding each other’s non-combatant prisoners may appear to have created difficulty at the very first post, but too much should not be made of the initial positions in any negotiation. The hope is that both sides, if they are holding non-combatants, will see fit to release them in a mutually agreed manner, not only because justice demands the innocent be freed, but also as a confidence building measure between the two sides. The government team briefed Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar on their return to Islamabad on Thursday. Not surprisingly, the details of that briefing are not available. In one sense this is good, because too much exposure of what is transpiring at too early a stage can skew things and cause problems. Reportedly, the next round of face to face talks between the two teams is expected in a day or two, reflecting the positive atmospherics that appear to have been set in the first encounter. Maulana Samiul Haq, who has ‘fathered’ the Taliban in the past and is now in the forefront ostensibly of persuading the Taliban to engage in negotiations, appears highly enthusiastic and optimistic about what has transpired so far. His colleague, Professor Ibrahim of the Jamaat-e-Islami, is also optimistic. Both men are promising good news soon. If so, more power to their elbow. It would be a great advance if first and foremost the non-combatant prisoners of either side, if it can be proved that the Taliban’s claim has weight, were released in a mutually acceptable manner so as to bring to an end the agony of their families and loved ones. Second, the talks will be helped to continue if the ceasefire holds and the ‘spoiler’ groups like Ahrarul Hind who refuse to accept the talks process, are prevented from continuing with their terrorist actions. Peace is desirable, but the niggling thought remains what this peace will mean. If it helps consolidate the status and ground positions of the Taliban as an armed group challenging the state, the problem will not disappear. It will only have been postponed to another date down the line.

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