One of the most important tasks awaiting Mian Nawaz Sharif after his election as the Prime Minister is the handling of the issue of the Taliban, which has serious implications for both Pakistan’s internal peace and stability, as well as for its external relations.

Internally, the wave of terrorism and religious extremism spearheaded by the Taliban has destabilised and polarised the country. The Taliban phenomenon in Pakistan also has important repercussions on the situation in Afghanistan and indirectly on our relations with the US because of the close links between TTP and the Afghan Taliban. The issues of the economy and the Taliban constitute the most serious challenges awaiting the new Prime Minister’s attention.

Nawaz Sharif has clearly articulated his preference for dialogue with the Taliban to overcome the serious dangers that they pose to the country’s security and stability. He also called for an end to the drone attacks by the US in his speech in Parliament after his election as the Prime Minister.

Nawaz Sharif’s willingness to resolve the Taliban issue through dialogue, if possible, has generated a heated debate in the country on its pros and cons. The liberals, on the whole, are opposed to the idea, while the conservative parties and groups seem to favour the dialogue option.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have withdrawn the offer of talks following the death of their leader, Waliur Rahman, in a US drone attack on May 29.

Contrary to the fashionable view in Pakistan, the Taliban as an organised group emerged much after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989. It is true, however, that many of the leaders and members of the Taliban had played an active role in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation.

The emergence of the Taliban as an organised group in Afghanistan under the leadership of Mullah Omer in 1994 was, in fact, a movement of protest against the lack of peace and stability, which prevailed in Afghanistan after the fall of the Najibullah regime and the alienation of the Afghan people because of the excesses of the various Afghan commanders.

This explains more than anything else the success of the Afghan Taliban in establishing their writ on most of Afghanistan under the leadership of Mullah Omer barring some small areas in north-eastern Afghanistan by 1998. But Pakistan’s help to the Taliban did play an important role in their successes against their opponents in Afghanistan. The fighting and instability in Afghanistan enabled al-Qaeda to establish its foothold in the country leading ultimately to 9/11 and the fall of the Taliban government following the US-led attack. This inevitably led to the expansion of the fighting by the Afghan Taliban against the US-led forces in Afghanistan because of the tribal links on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border.

Pakistan’s readiness under the US pressure to take military action against the tribesmen in our tribal areas to prevent them from going to the help of their tribal brethren in Afghanistan redirected the fury of the Pakistani Taliban against targets in Pakistan. It should be obvious, therefore, that the main reason for the attacks by Pakistani Taliban or TTP against targets in Pakistan has been our readiness to oblige the Americans by attacking the Taliban on the Pakistani side of the Pak-Afghan border in the first place.

Pakistan’s policy on the Taliban issue must be dictated by the requirements of peace and stability in the country, rather than the desire to please the US or other external powers. After all, we cannot sacrifice the country’s internal peace and stability for pleasing foreign powers howsoever strong they may be.

This is particularly true now when the US-led forces are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan barring some residual military presence in the country mainly to continue the fight against the remnants of al-Qaeda and offer some support to the Afghan government.

Our first and foremost duty should be the restoration of peace and stability in Pakistan by bringing the Pakistani Taliban to the negotiation table with the aim of reaching an agreement with them within the framework of the constitution. The government must negotiate with the TTP with an open mind and with necessary flexibility so as to reach ultimately an agreement under which the TTP and its affiliates would renounce fighting against the state of Pakistan and its various institutions in return for the acceptance of their reasonable demands within the framework of Pakistan’s constitution and law. A reasonable and understanding attitude on the part of Government of Pakistan would result in a satisfactory conclusion of the talks with the TTP or at least in isolating and weakening the extremist elements within the Pakistani Taliban.

There is no denying the fact of linkages between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP and its affiliates in Pakistan. As long as the American-led forces in Afghanistan continue to attack the Afghan Taliban, their tribal brethren on the Pakistani side of the Pakistan-Afghan border will continue to cross the border to help them in the fighting against foreign forces.

Pakistan has already paid a very heavy price in life (40,000 lives so far) and treasure ($100 billion according to some estimates) in obliging the Americans in their fight against the Afghan Taliban. We are under no obligation to continue to do so, if the US continues to follow a flawed policy in Afghanistan.

In short, cooperation between Pakistan and the US should be a two-way traffic in which the two governments exchange views and coordinate their policies concerning Afghanistan. It cannot and should not be a one way traffic in which the US keeps on making demands on us without any obligations on its part to coordinate its policy concerning Afghanistan with us. To strengthen our bargaining position vis-à-vis the US, we should pursue a policy of self-reliance. After all, beggars cannot be choosers.

A well-coordinated Pakistan-US policy should aim at promoting national reconciliation and the establishment of a broad-based government in Afghanistan in which the various Afghan parties have their due share in power. For the realisation of this objective, the US and Pakistan should encourage and facilitate the commencement of negotiations among the various Afghan parties, including the Taliban amongst others, so that they reach, free of foreign interference, a power-sharing formula as a precursor to general elections and the establishment of a broad-based government in Afghanistan. Only such a negotiated settlement can ensure durable peace in Afghanistan.

 The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council  for World Affairs.