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Weakened Pakistani Taliban limp into peace talks

world Updated: Nov 23, 2011 09:16 IST

AFP
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After a deadly campaign of attacks, the Pakistani Taliban are weakened and exploring peace talks with authorities perceived as increasingly at odds with the United States, observers say.

Taliban commanders now say they have started initial talks with Islamabad, mediated by former army officials, in a move that could end years of "holy war" that saw 500 attacks killing more than 4,700 people, according to an AFP tally.

The army and the spokesman for the main umbrella Tehreek e Taliban faction, allied to al Qaeda, strongly denied the claims and low-level violence continues on a near daily basis, as do clashes between troops and militants.

Any negotiations underway need to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Rebel factions are eclectic and nebulous and it remains unclear whether they are united enough to clinch a deal or how long any such deal would last.

Nevertheless, the rhythm of attacks has changed dramatically in Pakistan, with the death toll steadily diminishing in a pattern that continued after US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in the garrison city of Abbottabad on May 2.

Significantly, there has been no major Islamist militant attack in Pakistan since a suicide bomber killed 46 people at a funeral in the northwestern district of Lower Dir on September 15.

According to an AFP tally, around 800 people have been killed in bomb attacks so far this year, significantly fewer than the 1,360 killed in 2010.

About 556 people died in attacks in the six months before bin Laden was killed and 412 in the six months afterwards.

"TTP was at its peak in 2007-2008. But it has since been weakened and is divided," said Saifullah Khan Mehsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Centre, a think tank dedicated to the Afghan border areas where Taliban are based.

In 2009, the Taliban marched to within 100 kilometres (60 miles) of the capital Islamabad, sending Western allies into a tailspin of panic, worried that Pakistan's nuclear weapons could fall into rebel hands.

The army went on the offensive, local anti-Taliban militias proliferated and the rebels were pushed back into the mountains on the Afghan border. TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a US drone strike in August 2009.

Islamist militants' main base, the tribal district of North Waziristan, has been targeted for three years by US drone strikes which "kill TTP militants for the most part", according to one frequent visitor to the district.

The army has also stepped up searches and checkpoints on the roads linking the semi-autonomous tribal zone to the rest of the country. More and more rebels are also reported to have fled into Afghanistan.

"It is much more difficult for militants to move around. Overall, their network has been disrupted," said the frequent visitor to North Waziristan.

A number of observers also say the TTP is short of money. Two of its main sources of income - kidnappings for ransom and donations from local traders -- have dried up.

Potential kidnapping victims are taking more precautions and people are less inclined to cough up cash when civilians are so often killed in their attacks.

But at least some TTP commanders are also keen to change strategy, in the wake of the bin Laden fallout, several analysts believe.

Senior figures in the Pakistani Taliban this week claimed to be holding initial peace talks with the government, saying that two rounds had already been conducted.

One commander told AFP that Taliban conditions included troops withdrawing to barracks, the military compensating losses and an exchange of prisoners.

The umbrella organisation has never been united. If chief Hakimullah Mehsud has cosied up to Al-Qaeda and dug his heels in with hardliners, others like number two Wali ur-Rehman are more open to negotiations.

Pakistan was humiliated by the bin Laden raid and beset by the most serious allegations to date of its duplicity with Islamist militants.

"The Abbottabad raid, which hurt Pakistanis a lot, and the rumours of a US attack in the tribal areas boosted the sense of national unity everywhere in Pakistan, from authorities to militants," said the analyst Mehsud.

The army and its powerful intelligence services "are trying their best to push militants away" from jihad in Pakistan, he added.

With tensions with Washington at an all-time high, a conference of political and military leaders united behind calls for peace and reconciliation on September 29, rebuffing American pressures to attack in North Waziristan.

"There was already a shift in the Pakistani policy, which became tougher to the US, even before Abbottabad," said Fakhr ul-Islam, a professor of history at the University of Peshawar.

"Militants have taken this shift of policy into account" and become less aggressive against Islamabad, he added.