ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan’s much-awaited talks with the Taliban 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.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif surprised his country last week when he announced he would give peace talks another chance just as speculation intensified that his government was preparing for a military offensive against Pakistani Taliban strongholds.
The Pakistani Taliban are fighting to topple the central government and establish Islamic rule but have recently shown willingness to come to the negotiating table.
On Tuesday, a group of bearded negotiators representing the Taliban arrived at an agreed venue in central Islamabad at 2 p.m. (4 a.m. ET) for what had been scheduled to be the first round of 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 Taliban negotiators, a radical cleric known as the Father of the Taliban, 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.”
Confusion marked the days leading up to what was expected to be the first historic day of informal talks on Tuesday, with the Taliban nominating a list of public figures to represent them without seemingly consulting them first.
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan immediately declined the Taliban’s request, and so did Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a hardline cleric.
“We don’t want to be part of a process where they use us as a decoy,” said Jan Achakzai, Rehman’s spokesman.
“If you are nominating every person on earth, how can they have negotiations?” he said. “The proper mechanism is very important if you really want to engage.”
It was not clear when the talks would resume. The government’s four-member negotiating team was not immediately available for comment.
Haq said the government team did not come because they had sought clarifications about the composition of the Taliban committee. “They said they are confused about our committee since it has been reduced to three members,” Haq said.
Many in Pakistan doubt that talking to an insurgent group which stages near daily attacks around Pakistan would yield any result.
In a pattern seen repeatedly in Pakistan through the past decade, the Taliban would often use ceasefire accords with the government to regroup, find new resources and strike back.
The al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban are allied with the Afghan Taliban but the Afghan militants, bent on forcing foreign troops from Afghanistan, do not fight the Pakistani state.
Pakistani Taliban militants have stepped up attacks against security forces in Pakistan since the beginning of the year, prompting the army to send fighter jets to bomb militant strongholds in the ethnic Pashtun region of North Waziristan, along the Afghan border, and triggering talk that a major ground offensive was in the works.
Thousands of villagers have fled their homes in North Waziristan since then for fear of another military operation.
Pakistan’s all-powerful army has not said anything on the latest revival of the talks idea but it has traditionally favored a military approach.
“A further constraint on successful negotiations is the apparent lack of the army’s input in the decision to begin talks,” Eurasia Group said in a note.
“The army’s silence thus far about the government’s prioritization of talks versus military operations raises the possibility of heightened army-government tensions - particularly if talks fail, as expected, and the security situation continues to deteriorate.”
The United States, which views Pakistani cooperation as vital to its strategy in neighboring Afghanistan, is also watching. It wants Pakistan to do more to tackle militancy and views peace talks with suspicion.
Even negotiators themselves have doubts.
“It’s an uphill task. It’s not an easy task. In the past such efforts could not bring any fruit and miserably failed,” Irfan Siddiqui, a journalist picked by Sharif to represent the government, said ahead of Tuesday’s scheduled talks.
“So although we are very optimistic, we can’t say with full surety that we will be able to do the thing and bring them to the table.”
Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld and Amjad Ali; Editing by Robert Birsel