Pakistan opposition chief backs talks with Taliban
By ASIF SHAHZAD (AP)
ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s top opposition leader said Saturday that the government should negotiate with the country’s Taliban militants to ease the relentless security crisis in the nuclear-armed, U.S.-allied nation.
Nawaz Sharif made the comments two days after a pair of suicide bombers killed 42 people at a famed Sufi shrine in the province controlled by his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N. The party is considered more religiously conservative and aligned with pro-Taliban parties than the Pakistan People’s Party, which runs the federal government.
Sharif said Islamabad shouldn’t wait for directives from Washington on how to deal with its problems.
“We have this problem in our home. Why shouldn’t we take initiatives?” he said in a news conference in Lahore that was broadcast live. He specified that the government should talk to the “Taliban who are ready to talk and ready to listen.”
Federal government officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Sharif’s party has been criticized in recent months for not going after militant groups in Punjab province, which the party runs and where several lethal ones operate that have ties to al-Qaida and Taliban fighters based along the Afghan border in the northwest. One recent group that has emerged in the eastern province has been labeled the “Punjabi Taliban.”
Punjab’s law minister has even campaigned alongside members of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a Sunni extremist group bent on eradicating minority Shiite Muslims. And the party’s leaders often respond equivocally or not at all on the subject of Islamist extremism in Pakistan.
Sharif is a former prime minister who was overthrown in a 1999 coup by then-Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf’s government and the one now in power tried several times to negotiate with Taliban fighters who have strongholds in the northwest. But for the most part, those peace deals failed.
In 2009, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley to appease militants there, but that deal collapsed after the militants started moving outside the district to spread their reign closer to the capital.
Since then, the military has undertaken several offensives aimed at dismantling the Pakistani Taliban network in the northwest. But the army is believed to have reached “understandings” with militant groups who are based in Pakistan but focus on the fight against Western troops in Afghanistan — much to Washington’s displeasure.
It was unclear Saturday exactly which groups Sharif expected the government to talk to. There are numerous militant organizations in Pakistan, and they often overlap and work together.
Asked about this and the past failed peace attempts, Sharif said only: “Peace is the priority. Ways can be found.”