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In Bad Faith

Author: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
February 19, 2014
ForeignPolicy.com

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Pakistan's bid to make peace with homegrown Taliban insurgents appeared to run aground over the weekend, after a faction of the extremist group claimed to have executed 23 paramilitary soldiers. At face value, stalemated talks are a setback for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has for months assiduously pursued negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Look deeper, however, and it is clear that the suspension of peace talks is actually good news for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Still, if Sharif fails to recalibrate his negotiation strategy -- in particular, by drawing a clear line of defense around Pakistan's constitutional order -- a rare period of goodwill between Washington and Islamabad could soon come to an end.

After several rocky years, the United States and Pakistan have managed to restore a narrow basis for security cooperation and are even coordinating their tactics against the TTP. To be sure, the peace talks were hardly welcomed by Washington, which views the TTP not just as a threat to the Pakistani state, but as a potential source of international terrorism. Nonetheless, the United States has allowed the negotiations to run their course, even holding off on drone strikes so as not to be responsible for scuttling the delicate process.

Under normal circumstances, of course, high-profile dialogue between the Pakistani government and the TTP would be cause for contention with the United States, not cooperation. But in conversations in Islamabad earlier this month, well-placed Pakistani officials went out of their way to convey to me that the talks are mainly a political charade. Soon enough, those officials hinted, the TTP will show its irreconcilable colors and the public will conclude that war is the only option. At this point, the army will be unleashed in North Waziristan, the principal bastion of anti-state militancy along Pakistan's long border with Afghanistan.

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