ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan's interior minister said Monday that the government was ready to hold peace talks with domestic Taliban militants who have been waging a bloody insurgency that has killed thousands of people in the country.
Rehman Malik's comments were the latest sign of growing momentum for talks and followed statements by senior Pakistani Taliban leaders who also indicate they are ready to sit down at the negotiating table.
The government appeared to have dropped an earlier demand that the Taliban lay down their weapons and renounce violence prior to talks, a position rejected by the militants.
"We are ready to start talks with you," Malik told reporters, adding that bullets are "not the answer."
"You tell us what team you would like to talk to, and let's set an agenda," Malik said in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Ruling party lawmakers say one key issue driving the government toward talks — which have the blessing of the country's powerful military — is concern about violence in the run-up to parliamentary elections expected this spring. The lawmakers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The Pakistani military has waged an aggressive campaign against the Taliban in their northwest sanctuaries along the Afghan border since 2009, but the militants have proved resilient. There has been an uptick in violence in recent months as the Taliban have carried out a series of high-profile attacks, including two against Pakistani air force bases.
It is less clear what is motivating the Taliban to push for negotiations — whether they are doing so because they feel they are in a position of strength or weakness. The militants have publicly spurned government offers of talks in the past and have denied reports that the group has held secret discussions with officials.
It is also uncertain how much common ground the two sides would find if they met face-to-face. The Taliban have demanded that Pakistan sever ties with the United States and impose Islamic law in the country.
Brig. Asad Munir, former head of Pakistan's main intelligence agency in the northwest, said he thought the talks were destined to fail and that the only solution was an operation in the Taliban's remaining sanctuary in the North Waziristan tribal area.
"It is not possible for any state to accept their conditions," Munir said.
Even if an agreement is reached, it's unclear if it would last, especially given divisions among the militants themselves. The government has cut peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban in the past, but they have largely fallen apart. The agreements have been criticized for allowing the militants to regroup and rebuild their strength to resume fighting the government and foreign troops in Afghanistan.
Talk of a new peace deal could be troubling to the United States if it is seen as providing militants with greater space to carry out operations in neighboring 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 are allies but have primarily focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border. The Pakistani Taliban also trained the Pakistani-American who carried out a failed car bombing in New York's Times Square in 2010.
The recent momentum toward peace talks began with a letter the Pakistani Taliban sent to a local newspaper at the end of December outlining conditions for a ceasefire, including the imposition of Islamic law and a break with Washington.
Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud then released a video in which he said the group "will consider every serious offer for talks" but would never agree to lay down their weapons as a precondition.
The most vocal proponents for negotiations with the Taliban on the government side have been members of the Awami National Party, which controls northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and has been repeatedly attacked by the militants. Those calls increased in December when a suicide bomber killed Bashir Bilour, the second most senior member of the provincial Cabinet.
"Talks with the Taliban are necessary for lasting peace," provincial information minister and ANP lawmaker Mian Iftikhar Hussain said at the end of January.
The army, which is considered the most powerful institution in the country, also backs the idea of talks, according to intelligence and counterterrorism officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they also were not authorized to talk to the media.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan said Sunday that the group has responded positively to the government's offer of negotiations but is worried that officials aren't serious. He told reporters that the Taliban wanted the army and three prominent politicians to "guarantee" the talks, although he did not specify what that meant.
The politicians included the country's main opposition leader, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the leaders of two hard-line Islamic parties, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Munawar Hasan.
The government has asked Rehman, head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, to act as a mediator in talks with the Taliban, said ruling party officials. Rehman has said he is willing to do so as long as the government gives him total authority.
Ahsan also demanded the government release former Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan and six other militants he said would be part of the group's negotiating team.
Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Shaktoi and Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan contributed to this report.