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Pakistan's new leader makes landmark offer of talks to Taliban

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Pakistan's incoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses his party's newly elected members of parliament in Lahore on May 20, 2013.

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's prime minister-designate Nawaz Sharif told a packed hall of his party stalwarts that talks with the Taliban -- who have been fighting the state for almost a decade -- are not off the table.

"All options should be tried, and guns and bullets are not a solution to all problems … Why shouldn't we sit and talk and engage in dialogue?" said Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, a center-right group that traces its roots back to the origin of Pakistan in 1947.

The party, once nurtured by military regimes, has now morphed into a modern, conservative, pro-business faction that secured a majority of the seats in the country’s parliament earlier this month.

Sharif's announcement in Lahore on Monday has created a schism among Pakistan's divided political classes.

For many, this is a war which must be committed to and won.

Days before the May 11 election -- the first, largely peaceful and constitutional transfer of power from one civilian administration to the next -- the country's powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, reminded audiences in a rare public speech that "there can be no doubt that this is our war.”

“The soldier of the Pakistani army cannot fight under conditions of doubt …The army cannot fight this war alone. The Pakistani people must also fight alongside us,” he added.

The military says more than 5,000 people have been killed with over 20,000 wounded in the fight against the Taliban.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

Maj. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa, director general of Inter-Service Public Relations, said there was “no ambiguity about the military's position.”

“Pakistan will do what it can to protect itself from domestic as well as foreign threats. This is a national effort,” he said.

The Pakistani Taliban would be willing to partake in peace talks, according to their spokesman, Ihsanullah Ihsan. He said they had already been willing to participate in peace talks with the previous government – and that they had wanted to work with Sharif as a guarantor to implement accords, if they were agreed to.

"Before he was not part of the government and that's why we wanted him to become guarantor,” the Taliban spokesman told NBC News. “Now he will have his own government, so let us see what type of polices he formulates about us.”

Senator Pervez Rashid, spokesperson of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, did not respond to an interview request.

For his part, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination was claimed by Pakistani Taliban, insists that the war-ravaged country has lost almost a $100 billion in the battle against the Taliban.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says that more than 40,000 civilians have died in Pakistan's version of the War on Terror. Sharif's rival during the recent election, the charismatic former cricket star Imran Khan and leader of a neo-nationalist political party called the Movement for Justice, calls it the state's "War of Terror on Pakistan."

Khan has been pushing for talks with the Taliban and has also called for Pakistan to shoot down U.S. drones that operate over the country’s unruly tribal areas.

The recent election secured a federal government for Sharif and a provincial government for Khan in the volatile Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan.

This means that two of Pakistan's major political opponents are now broadly in agreement about talks with the Taliban.

But there are still others who disagree.

"If our elected office holders think that the Taliban are not at war with the state, then with due respect, I don't think the Taliban got that memo," said Asad Khwaja, a host on a liberal radio network, soon after Sharif's announcement became national news.

"We have lost thousands - soldiers, men, women, children - to this menace. I really hope that our leaders understand what they're asserting, for the sake of Pakistan."


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