August 24, 2013

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — The Pakistani Taliban sidelined a senior commander Saturday for welcoming the government’s offer to hold peace talks, the group’s spokesman said, exposing a rift within the group and raising questions about the likelihood of negotiations.

The commander, Asmatullah Muawiya, was not authorized to respond to the government’s offer, said Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid. Muawiya has been removed from his position as leader of the Pakistani Taliban’s wing from central Punjab province, said Shahid.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who took office in June, campaigned on a platform that included starting peace talks with the Taliban as the best way to end the group’s bloody insurgency, which has resulted in thousands of deaths in recent years.

Sharif reiterated his desire to hold negotiations in a speech on Monday, but also said the government would leave open the possibility of using force. The Pakistani military has waged scores of operations against the Taliban in recent years, but the militants have proven resilient and continue to carry out frequent attacks.

Sharif has continued to push for peace talks even after the Taliban withdrew on offer to negotiate at the end of May in response to a U.S. drone strike that killed the group’s deputy commander. Muawiya raised eyebrows on Thursday when he sent a statement to journalists saying militants should respond positively to the government’s offer to hold peace talks if it was serious. His view was seen as carrying weight because the Taliban’s leadership has supported his statements in the past, and he was the first person to indicate at the end of last year that the militant group was open to the possibility of holding negotiations. The Taliban’s leader issued a video shortly thereafter affirming the position.

But Shahid, the Taliban spokesman, said the group’s leadership would meet to decide their position on the government’s offer. “A decision about talks with the government should be taken after reviewing their position,” Shahid said, adding that the group didn’t appreciate the government’s “threats.”

Muawiya, however, defied the main group’s decision, telling The Associated Press that the executive council couldn’t remove him because the Punjabi Taliban is a separate group. He said his group has its own decision-making body to decide leadership and other matters.

The idea of holding government peace talks with the Taliban is controversial in Pakistan because past deals have largely fallen apart. Pakistanis have criticized the agreements for allowing militants to rebuild their strength to resume fighting the government and U.S.-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Activists also have raised concerns that future peace deals could include provisions that threaten human rights in the country, especially for women.

Even if the two sides sit down to talk, it’s unclear whether they will be able to find common ground given the Taliban’s demands that Islamic law be implemented and Islamabad break its alliance with Washington. It’s also unclear what Pakistan’s powerful generals would support. The army is considered the most powerful institution in Pakistan and has lost thousands of troops fighting the Taliban.

Talk of a peace deal could be troubling to the U.S. if it is seen as providing militants with greater space to carry out operations in Afghanistan. However, Washington’s push for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban could also make it difficult to oppose an agreement in Pakistan.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have primarily focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border. The Pakistani Taliban also trained the Pakistani-American who failed to carry out an attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square in 2010.

Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan.