Peace talks between Pakistan’s government and Taliban militants broke down on Monday after 23 army soldiers in Taliban captivity were killed.
Hours after the head of the main Taliban group in Mohmand – an unruly region near the Afghan border – claimed responsibility for the killing, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement: “Pakistan cannot afford such bloodshed . . . The situation is very sad and the whole nation is shocked.”
A meeting due to take place on Monday between Pakistani officials and Taliban representatives was subsequently cancelled. A Pakistani intelligence official told the Financial Times “there is no new date. We don’t know if the process will resume and if so in what form.”
Mr Sharif launched a new peace initiative in January. But several western diplomats and Pakistani security officials had already resigned themselves to the talks – a key Sharif election pledge last year – failing to bring a permanent resolution to the violence which has wracked the country. If anything Pakistan has witnessed an escalation in attacks by the Taliban since the talks began.
Earlier on Monday, Pakistan’s privately owned GEO TV channel quoted Umar Kharasani, head of the Taliban in Mohmand province as saying the killings were an act of revenge for army action against the group. “We want to make it clear to the government that we know very well how to avenge the killings of our members,” Mr Kharasani was reported to have said.
There was no detail on when the executions took place and no independent confirmation of the militant group’s claim.
But western officials said the Taliban claim would force Mr Sharif to quickly decide if he wants to continue the negotiations or support an all-out military campaign against the strongholds of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella group representing up to 60 militant groups. “I don’t believe, the prime minister can afford to be indecisive for very long,” said one western diplomat in Islamabad.
Analysts however warned an army campaign against TTP strongholds in the north Waziristan region along the Afghan border, would only add to the intensity of Pakistan’s internal conflict.
“We are going through a vicious cycle of violence,” said retired Brigadier Farooq Hameed Khan, a security commentator. “Unless both sides sit down seriously and negotiate a ceasefire, this vicious cycle is going to escalate.”
Others said Mr Sharif, who was removed from power in a 1999 military coup and returned as prime minister in 2013, might be reluctant to give the influential military an opportunity to take charge of security policies.
“The government may still seek to pursue the peace process despite the provocation from the Taliban,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a commentator on security and military affairs. “They [the Sharif government] probably believe that a military campaign will shift the political initiative in favour of the military and that’s what they want to avoid.”
Get alerts on Pakistan when a new story is published