ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s much-awaited talks with the Taleban got off to a shambolic start on Tuesday after government negotiators failed to turn up at an agreed time following days of confusion over who should represent the insurgents.
The preliminary peace talks began following a spate of killings, but there is skepticism about their chances of success.
Two teams, nominated by the government and the Tehreek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), were due to gather in Islamabad at 2:00 p.m. (0900 GMT) to chart a “roadmap” for talks.
“We arrived on time for the meeting but the government side didn’t turn up,” a visibly angry Maulana Sami ul-Haq, one of the Taleban negotiators, a radical cleric known as the Father of the Taleban, told reporters after a two-hour wait.
But he added: “Our doors are still open for talks. It’s a golden opportunity and we should not waste it.”
In a surprise move last week Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif named a team to begin dialogue with the militants, who have been waging a violent insurgency since 2007.
Many observers had been anticipating a military offensive against TTP strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal areas, following a bloody start to the year. More than 110 people were killed in militant attacks in January, many of them military personnel.
Critics have accused Sharif’s government of dithering in response to the resurgent violence and media held out scant hope for the talks.
The TTP has said in the past that it opposes democracy and wants Islamic sharia law imposed throughout Pakistan, while the government has stressed the country’s constitution must remain paramount.
English-language daily The Nation predicted the “peace talks balloon will burst soon enough.”
“The ambiguity and confusion still exists because the political leadership has been extremely hesitant toward taking a clear stand and calling a spade a spade for a change,” it said in an editorial on Tuesday.
The News predicted the process would be “long and excruciating… since neither committee contains anyone with the authority to make decisions.”
The government team consists of senior journalists Irfan Siddiqui and Rahimullah Yusufzai, former diplomat Rustam Shah Mohmand and retired major Mohammad Aamir, formerly of the Inter Services Intelligence agency.
The Taleban side includes Maulana Sami-ul-Haq and two other religious party leaders.
The TTP had asked cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan to be part of their team but he declined.
“This is a very preliminary meeting. We will listen to each other and will try to smooth the atmosphere for future talks,” Professor Ibrahim Khan, one of the religious party leaders on the Taleban team, told AFP.
The two sides held separate meetings in Islamabad on Monday and later decided to talk each other on Tuesday, Khan said.
“We will talk to the Taleban after meeting the government committee,” he said. “Our first priority is peace. We will try to have a ceasefire first and then will try for a permanent peace.”
Haq told AFP on Monday that the TTP had so far made no formal demands for the talks.
In the past the militants have called for their prisoners to be released and for Pakistani troops to be pulled out of the seven tribal areas along the Afghan border.