ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Planned peace talks between Pakistan’s government and Taliban insurgents failed to get underway today amid accusations from both sides that the other was uninterested in serious dialogue, and just hours before fresh violence.
After months of on-again, off-again talks aimed at curbing a deadly insurgency, representatives for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistani Taliban were slated to meet in the afternoon for preliminary negotiations. But despite broad optimism that the planned talks represented a breakthrough in Sharif’s effort to reach a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, a dispute over the legitimacy of respective bargaining committees scuttled the planned meeting.
A four-member panel appointed by Sharif said it had reservations about meeting with Taliban representatives because none of them appeared to have actual ties to the militant group. Taliban leaders, who are believed to reside in isolated tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan, have appointed three prominent Islamic scholars to represent them at the planned talks.
“We would like to know the mandate given by the Taliban to this committee, the authority to discuss issues and make decisions, “ Irfan Siddiqui, a member of the government committee, said in defending Pakistan’s decision not to show up at the planned 2 p.m. meeting.
But Maulana Sami ul-Haq, a member of the Taliban’s negotiating committee, accused the government of trying to “sabotage” its own peace effort before it got started.
“We waited three hours, but the government is backtracking,” Haq said late in the afternoon. “The Taliban is ready for talks.”
Government officials said they are hopeful that talks can still take place soon.
The dispute underscores the challenges facing Sharif as he tries to reach an accord with the Pakistani Taliban, which formed in 2008 to try to dislodge the country’s elected government and install Islamic law.
Sharif, who returned as prime minister in June after two terms in the 1990s, has made such talks a top priority. But after several recent lethal attacks on Pakistan’s army, many analysts expect that Sharif may soon be forced to abandon his peace strategy in favor of a military operation targeting Taliban strongholds in North and South Waziristan.
Taliban leaders said they have suspended their attacks in hopes of reaching a negotiated peace, but both they and government officials have warned that other parties could try to sabotage the talks.
With more than 30 active militant groups in Pakistan, officials say numerous actors could launch attacks to try to derail a long-term peace agreement. There is also concern that various factions within the increasingly splintered Taliban are also working to undermine the planned talks.
Late today, at least nine people were killed and 50 others wounded when a bomb exploded near a restaurant in a Shiite neighborhood in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Jamil Shah, a spokeswoman for Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital, said that many of the wounded included women and children and that the death toll was likely to rise. There was no immediate assertion of responsibility for the attack.