Can Pakistan talk its way to peace with the Taliban?

Pakistani politicians have offered talks to the Taliban, but with attacks continuing and the militants issuing demanding conditions for negotiations, the road to peace looks as long and tortuous as ever.

At the instigation of the new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a conference of Pakistan's political parties last week called for talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main grouping of the militants.

An umbrella faction for armed Islamist outfits but also criminals and mafia gangs, the TTP was created in 2007 and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda. In the years since, it has carried out hundreds of attacks, killing more than 6,000 people.

The TTP initially hailed the initiative but on Sunday issued a series of tough conditions for taking part in talks, including the release of all of its members held in Pakistani jails and the complete withdrawal of government forces from the tribal areas along the Afghan border that are its stronghold.

The same day, the militants carried out a series of attacks in the country's restive northwest that left seven soldiers and police dead, including a general commanding an army division.

TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said they had not been approached for talks and the war with the Pakistani authorities would continue unless the government announced a ceasefire.

After Sunday's attacks, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani released a statement affirming the army's support for talks but vowing not to cave in to the TTP's demands.

"While it is understandable to give peace a chance through the political process no-one should have any misgivings that we would let terrorists coerce us into accepting their terms," Kayani said.

Peace deals reached with the TTP in the past, in limited geographical areas, have fallen apart quickly and Pakistani media have questioned whether a genuine, effective peace agreement was really possible.

They noted the difficulties apparent in trying to reconcile the government and army's firm commitment to maintaining Pakistan's territorial integrity and constitution with the Taliban's desire for the imposition of sharia law, among other issues.

It is a dilemma which some say is fuelling division within the militant ranks as much as debate among the politicians and men in khaki.

"The attack on a senior military general is a sign that there are Taliban groups who don't want to negotiate with the government," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, former information minister in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which has borne the brunt of TTP attacks.

The Pakistani Taliban are made up of a myriad of factions which have declared "holy war" on the government in Islamabad, which they accuse of kowtowing to Washington, India and religious minorities such as Shiites.

Citing intelligence sources, Hussain said that while some Taliban groups support talks, notably those in Punjab which are vehemently anti-Indian and historically close to the military, others do not.

The latter include the hardline group of Mullah Fazlullah, which took control of Swat valley in 2007 before being kicked out by a major army operation two years later.

Hussain said Sunday's attacks were "basically an effort to spoil the peace talks", a view backed up by a senior Taliban commander, who said Fazlullah's group were behind the blast that killed the general.

Journalist and analyst Rahimullah Yousufzai said there has been some contact with the TTP but nothing of substance has been achieved so far.

"Lots of questions remain unanswered: how do you talk, where, how do you implement any agreement? Do you need to free prisoners?" he told AFP.

Moreover, the support of the army -- still the most powerful institution in the country -- for a talks process is not guaranteed to last indefinitely. Kayani will retire in November and the identity and inclinations of his successor are unknown.

Imran Khan, the head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, said the authorities must use the traditional channel of tribal elders for the talks.

"The government has no choice (but to negotiate), this is the only solution. In the past the army did, but now the federal government should take responsibility," he told AFP.