Pakistani army, government at loggerheads over Taliban talks

ISLAMABAD Fri Sep 20, 2013 5:09pm IST

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to the crowd as he leaves after attending a flag raising ceremony to mark the country's 67th Independence Day in Islamabad August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves to the crowd as he leaves after attending a flag raising ceremony to mark the country's 67th Independence Day in Islamabad August 14, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mian Khursheed

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Disagreement over how to handle an escalating insurgency has put Pakistan's all-powerful army on a collision course with the government, with the military increasingly vocal in its criticism of civilian leaders, officials and diplomats said.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who came to power in May has promised to tame Islamist militancy through negotiations, but four months on, talks have yet to start and attacks continue daily.

The army, which has ruled the South Asian nation for more than half its history, has avoided open confrontation with Sharif and his government but tension is on the rise.

"The army chief ... is thinking: 'Mian Sahib (Nawaz Sharif), enough is enough'," a senior army officer serving in the strife-plagued Pashtun tribal area along the Afghan border told Reuters during a visit to Islamabad.

The military-civilian discord has been the source of tension throughout Pakistani history but Sharif's election has raised hopes the government would get a larger say following Pakistan's first transition between civilian administrations.

Sharif promised to hold talk with the militants during the election campaign, a welcome vow for many Pakistanis who, while abhorring the bombers, have never been convinced of the necessity of joining the U.S.-led campaign against militancy.

The army, which keeps thousands of troops in the tribal belt, opposes talks with the Pakistani Taliban, saying previous attempts to bring the militants to the negotiating table yielded no results.

Frustration spilled into the open on Sunday when a roadside bomb killed a general and another officer near the Afghan border, just days after government officials promised to launch peace negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban soon.

"This incident has dealt a serious blow (to the peace process)," Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar told parliament this week. "We have come to a standstill."

"QUITE DISTURBING"

The tension comes at a crucial time when speculation is mounting over who will replace the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, arguably Pakistan's most powerful man, who is due to retire in November.

The army put out a toughly worded statement this week.

"While reaffirming the army's support for the political process, (Kayani) also said, unequivocally, that terrorists will not be allowed to take advantage of it," it said.

"The army has the ability and the will to take the fight to the terrorists."

The United States, Pakistan's biggest donor, is pushing Islamabad to step up its campaign against groups such as the Haqqani network which regularly attacks U.S. forces in Afghanistan from hideouts in Pakistani mountains.

"The absence of a strong government narrative on how to counter terrorism is quite disturbing for everyone, including the army chief," said a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad.

The Dawn newspaper described Pakistani leaders as "pusillanimous and weak" while the right-leaning The News wrote: "We have run out of ideas on how to deal with the Taliban."

The Pakistani Taliban are a fragmented alliance of factions with no coherent voice. Some within the group have announced preconditions, while others have denied this. The government would not say who would talk to whom, where and when.

"Until they (government) say out loud who the enemy is, there can be no policy and there can be no results," said the senior military officer.

The army says it would not agree to any preconditions, particularly the withdrawal of troops from tribal areas.

"They are saying: 'Get out of here and let us be kings'," another army source also serving in the tribal belt said of the Pakistani Taliban. "That's not an option."

(Editing by Maria Golovnina and Robert Birsel)

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