Pakistan Extends Olive Branch to India

Nawaz_Sharif_UNGA Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif addresses the 68th United Nations General Assembly on Friday Sept. 27, 2013 at U.N. headquarters. Andrew Burton, Pool – AP Photo

Pakistan Extends Olive Branch to India

By Saeed Shah, The Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2013

NEW YORK—Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif used a speech at the United Nations on Friday to call for “a new beginning” in relations with India, two days ahead of a meeting with his Indian counterpart that has revived hopes about rekindling the peace process.

But in a sign of how difficult mending hostile ties between the two countries will be, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking after talks with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, said that the “epicenter of terrors still remains focused in Pakistan.”

In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Sharif again condemned U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan while defending government’s strategy of offering peace talks to the Pakistani Taliban, a militant outfit linked to al Qaeda.

“Dialogue should not be seen as a sign of weakness or tool of appeasement,” he said.

In Pakistan, however, a powerful faction of the militant group Friday rejected talks, saying the government was “not serious.”

The rejection came a day after Mr. Sharif, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, laid out conditions for a peace deal for the first time, saying that the Pakistani Taliban would have to accept the existing constitution and lay down their arms.

The faction based in Mohmand, part of the tribal areas that run along the Afghan border, said in a letter distributed in the area that “the talks will never succeed because our aim is to change the constitution and the government is telling us to remain within the constitution.

“We will not step back one inch from our demand for a system of Islamic laws,” it said.

The letter was signed by the Mohmand chapter, which is run by a commander called Omer Khalid Khorasani. The letter said that the group was subordinate to Hakimullah Mehsud, the overall chief of the Pakistani Taliban.

The central leadership of the Pakistani Taliban has so far not ruled out talks but has put forward conditions that would be hard for the government to meet, including the release of many of the militants now held in Pakistani jails.

At the U.N., Mr. Sharif used the platform to reiterate his government’s opposition to U.S. drones, which target suspected militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Washington believes that the drones are a highly effective weapon against al Qaeda and other militants who use the tribal areas as a sanctuary. But Mr. Sharif believes that civilian casualties caused by the drones feed recruitment for extremist groups.

“The use of armed drones in the border areas of Pakistan is a continued violation of our territorial integrity,” Mr. Sharif said. “It results in casualties of innocent civilians and is detrimental to our resolve and efforts to eliminate extremism and terrorism from Pakistan.”

The Pakistani prime minister met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday in New York and is due to see President Barack Obama at the White House next month. Mr. Sharif said he had “urged the United States of America to cease these strikes so that we can avoid further casualties and suffering.”

Turning to Islamabad’s troubled relations with giant neighbor India, with which Pakistan has fought three wars, Mr. Sharif said that both countries had “wasted massive resources in an arms race.”

Mr. Sharif is due to see Mr. Singh in New York on Sunday, in what would be the highest-level engagement between the countries since Mr. Sharif’s government came to power in June.

“Pakistan and India can prosper together and the entire region would benefit from our cooperation. We stand ready to re-engage with India in a substantive and purposeful dialogue,” Mr. Sharif said in his speech. “I am looking forward to meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh here in New York, to make a new beginning. We have a solid basis to do that.”

However, an attack by militants Thursday in the Indian side of Kashmir, a region claimed by both countries, in which at least eight people were killed, has put more strains on the relationship.

India is also concerned about who will fill the vacumn left after U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year. After seeing President Obama, Mr. Singh dampened hopes about his meeting with Mr. Sharif.

“The expectations have to be toned down given the terror arm which is still active in our subcontinent,” Mr. Singh said.