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ISLAMABAD – The Pakistani government has recently opened negotiations with domestic militants called the Pakistani Taliban designed to end years of fighting in the northwest that has cost thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. A look at some of the main issues involved in the talks:
What's the history of the fighting?
— After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks, many Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida-linked foreign fighters took sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan's northwest. Under heavy American pressure, Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf agreed to help the U.S. oust the Taliban and battle al-Qaida. In December 2007, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan — also known as the Pakistani Taliban — was formed. The group is aligned with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and shares similar ideology, but the TTP has generally focused its attacks on Pakistani targets. The TTP has been one of the main groups responsible for bloodshed in the country; Pakistan is also dealing with sectarian violence as well as separatists in the Baluchistan province.
What is the government's goal?
— Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was elected last May, has consistently said he would like to negotiate an end to the fighting in the northwest. Sharif and others contend it's time to try talks when repeated military operations haven't quelled the violence completely. Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said Sharif has a lot of support from right-wing Pakistanis, many of whom feel the fighting is a result of American drone strikes and Pakistan's alliance with the U.S. "He is going for a dialogue because he thinks if he goes straight for military action then his support base might slip," said Rizvi.
What do the militants want?
— The TTP has not made any public demands in connection with the recent talks, which began last week in the capital, Islamabad. One of its negotiators, however, recently reiterated the militant group's insistence that Sharia, a strict interpretation of Islamic law, be implemented across the country. The militant group has previously called also for an end to American drone strikes, the removal of all military forces from the tribal areas and the release of its prisoners.
What's happened so far?
— Both the government and the Pakistani Taliban have picked people to negotiate for them. The government side is represented by two journalists, a retired military officer and a former ambassador to Afghanistan. The Taliban initially asked five people to represent them, including former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan, who has been a vocal supporter of talks; only three accepted (Khan did not). So far both sides have met twice, and one of the Taliban negotiators has traveled to North Waziristan by helicopter to meet with the militants. Professor Mohammed Ibrahim said on his return that he thought the militants were sincere: "I am confident that one day the government and the Taliban will sit across the table to hold direct talks."
Will the negotiations succeed?
— Many people are skeptical. Mansur Mehsud, who runs an Islamabad-based think tank, notes that the Pakistani Taliban are not a unified group, and some factions within the organization are opposed to peace talks. He pointed to militant attacks even as the negotiations begin. "In my opinion, these talks will fail," Mehsud said. A member of the Taliban negotiating committee, Mullana Abdul Aziz, warned during a press conference unless the government promises to impose Sharia law and base the constitution on the Quran, "these talks are just lip service."
What does the public think?
— Many Pakistanis are tired of years of bombings and attacks but view the war as being thrust upon them by the U.S. A grocery store owner in Peshawar, which has been repeatedly targeted by militants and seen a flood of refugees fleeing military operations, said he supports the negotiations: "The use of power is just a temporary solution. ... These militants just leave the area due to the operation and they start their activities again." But having seen previous peace agreements fall apart, few hold out much hope: "There is little chance that the Taliban will end attacks and abide by the terms of the agreement," said Amer Riaz, a lawyer in Lahore.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Zaheer Babar in Lahore and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.