US drones cloud Pakistan peace overtures with Taliban: Commanders

WASHINGTON: Pakistani Taliban raised the stakes for reaching a peace deal with the government by insisting, among other demands, that Islamabad develop a policy to prevent U.S. drone strikes against militants during the talks.

Senior leaders of the domestic insurgency presented a list of 35 demands to Pakistani government officials at a meeting in the South Waziristan part of the tribal areas Friday, Taliban commanders said.

The militants said they would abide by a cease-fire as long as talks continue, and the government has said it would respond to the demands. But the tentative peace overtures threaten to fall apart on the insurgents’ insistence that the government find a way to prevent U.S. drone strikes. Past deals with the Pakistani Taliban have collapsed after militant leaders were killed by drones.

The demands from the militant side, according to The Wall Street Journal, would give them nearly unconstrained control of Pakistan’s tribal areas. The tribal areas are already considered a major regional and international security threat as a sanctuary for jihadists from all over the globe.

“I have serious concerns that this process is legitimizing the militants,” said Bushra Gohar, a former lawmaker and senior member of the Awami National Party. “If the government agrees to all these demands, this is clear surrender,” she said. Ms. Gohar said the demands would turn the tribal areas into a separate “emirate for the Taliban.”

Even while the U.S. pursues peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, it is deeply uneasy about Pakistan’s negotiations with its homegrown militants. U.S. officials have been reluctant to comment publicly, however, wary that they will be blamed if the Pakistani process fails, the newspaper said.

The Pakistani Taliban, also demanded an amnesty for its members, the freeing of its prisoners and compensation for death and property damage from U.S. drone strikes and Pakistani army operations in the tribal areas.

Jan Achakzai, a spokesman for the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, which is playing a major role in the peace talks and is a partner of Mr. Sharif government, said that the government should be able to accept most of the militants’ demands.

“An amnesty is part of any reconciliation process, so that should not be a problem. Shariah is very easy to have in the tribal areas,” said Mr. Achakzai. “The aim is for these people to agree to live peacefully there.”

Mr. Achakzai said that it would be impossible to ask the militants to disarm, as guns are “part of the tribal culture.”

He added: “The one thing that the government cannot guarantee is that drone strikes won’t happen. The Americans do what they want with those. If that becomes a condition from the militants, then the peace process is in trouble.”