The deputy chief of the Pakistani Taliban announced Saturday that the militant group was in peace talks with the government and an agreement to end its brutal four-year insurgency was within striking distance.
The statement by Malvi Faqir Mohammad, which appeared timed to exploit tensions between the Pakistan army and the U.S., will likely stoke further concerns in Washington over Pakistan's reliability as a long-term partner in the fight against extremists.
It represented the first time a named Taliban commander has confirmed that the group is negotiating with the Pakistani government. Still, it was unclear whether Mohammad speaks for the entirety of the increasingly factionalized network, especially its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.
Asked about the alleged negotiations, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said that his government has followed a policy of "dialogue, deterrence and development" to tackle militants who are based in the lawless, Afghan border region.
"That is a continuing process," he told a local television station.
Pakistani officials have earlier stated that they do not talk to militants unless they surrender.
Despite pushing for peace talks to end the related insurgency in Afghanistan, Washington is unlikely to support similar efforts to strike a deal in Pakistan. Ties between the two countries have been on a downward trend all year, and were dealt a massive blow by an airstrike by U.S-led forces in Afghanistan two weeks ago that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The attack triggered fresh anti-Americanism in the country, including within the army ranks.
American forces and their NATO and Afghan allies regularly come under attack from Afghan militants and al-Qaida operatives, who live alongside Pakistani Taliban militants in the border region. Previous peace deals in the northwest didn't last long, and gave militants time to rest and regroup, as well as space for foreign extremists to prosper.
Mohammad said his men had held "peace talks with relevant government officials."
"They are progressing well, and we may soon sign a formal peace agreement with the government," he said in a telephone conversation.
He didn't specify the terms being discussed, but past deals have essentially been nonaggression pacts: the militants get to live unmolested by the army in the border regions, which the state has long been content to leave as an ungoverned space for strategic reasons, so long as they do not attack inside Pakistan. The army is accused of tolerating or supporting militants there who strike into Afghanistan.
After heavy U.S pressure and billions in aid, the army pummeled militants in the northwest over the past four years, helped greatly by American-fired drone strikes, killing many hundreds but falling well short of victory. Nevertheless, the pressure may have helped put the insurgents into talks, or led factions to suggest a truce.
Mohammad's main area of strength is the Bajur tribal region, where the army claims to have decimated the militants.
Mohammad said any deal in Bajur could be a "role model" for the rest of the border region.
The Pakistani Taliban, closely allied with al-Qaida, have been behind much of the violence tearing apart Pakistan over the last four and a half years. At least 35,000 people have been killed in suicide bombings, other insurgent attacks and army offensives.
Despite the Taliban's record of indiscriminate violence, much of it directed at civilians, there is political and public support for talks. In September, the weak civilian government announced it was prepared to "give peace a chance" with militants, pandering to right-wing Islamist parties and their supporters.
Many Pakistanis share the hard-line religious and anti-American views of the Taliban.
They believe the militants could be brought into the fold if only Islamabad severed its alliance with Washington, which they blame for sparking the insurgency by invading Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
That narrative has gained strength over the last year, during which an American CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis, a unilateral American raid killed Osama bin Laden and the airstrikes the deadly border attacks on Nov 26. Following each incident, the army whipped up anti-U.S. sentiment among the public.
The army maintains the border strike was a deliberate attack by the U.S.-led coalition. American officials deny that, saying it was tragic mistake. The army response has helped popularize further the narrative that America _ not the Taliban _ is the country's enemy, giving militants and their supporters who have long argued along those lines fresh legitimacy.
"As Pakistan distances itself from a key ally in the war on terror, it is only natural that the Taliban should make its position flexible and reach out to it," said Ishtiaq Ahmed, a professor of international relations at Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad. "The timing is right, the political winds in Pakistan and crumbling relations between the United States are narrowing the space between the Taliban and the state."
Violence has dropped significantly over the last year, particularly mass casualty attacks in large towns outside of northwest that grab attention and have political impact, leading to speculation that some kind of peace talks were perhaps ongoing. This week, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik actually thanked the Taliban for acting on what he said was a "request" not to stage attacks during a Shiite Muslim festival.
Taliban leaders say they want to oust the U.S.-backed government and install a hardline Islamist regime. They also have international jihadi ambitions and trained the Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb in New York City's Times Square in 2010.
Yet many commanders grouped under its name are motivated by building criminal fiefdoms at a local level, and may well be willing to split from the ideological core. Smuggling, drugs and kidnaps-for-ramsom are very lucrative business in the lawless, tribally administered region.
Last month, anonymous militants and intelligence officials said exploratory peace talks were under way between the two sides. One militant said prisoner exchanges had taken place and other confidence building measures. The government and the army denied any such talks after those reports were published, as did a spokesman for the Taliban.