AUSTIN SZABO WRITES – The Pakistani wing of the Taliban wants to do the seemingly impossible: Win public sympathy through improved PR.

Surprisingly, it’s working.

Since the election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last year, the Taliban has retooled its communications ops to project the image of an embattled and misunderstood political party.

Despite its own long history of killing civilians, the group recently condemned a deadly attack on an Islamic center, claiming those responsible were tying to “tarnish the image of the mujahedeen.”

By distancing itself from such attacks, the Taliban (under a local front known as the TTP) has encouraged rumors of a splinter group. That lets it keep killing “American stooges” with a degree of plausible deniability.

Why does a terrorist network suddenly care about its image?

The shift is part of a plan to win the hearts and minds of Pakistanis, and extract concessions from the government as peace talks continue.

Yes, such attacks diminish government confidence in the group. “Whatever little trust there was between the two parties, that trust has completely fizzled away,” the Pakistani defense minister said.

But the PR campaign has successfully distracted the media and altered public discourse, even as the violence continues. And while talks continue, the Taliban has slowly retaken land, improved their own image, and inspired fear in those who might oppose them.

A sign of their success: Public opinion opinion toward Malala Yusafzai (the 16-year-old education activist who was shot by the Taliban) has soured at home, even as she’s celebrated around the world.

Stalled peace talks and the Taliban’s PR tactics have deeply divided Pakistan. Many see negotiation as surrender, while others view it as the only solution to unending war.

The divide is made worse by the government’s own corruption and ineptitude. Compared to it, the Taliban presents itself as a viable, religiously conservative alternative. And in certain quarters that plays well.

The PR offensive is a well-organized and brilliantly executed plan to distract and confuse Pakistanis with empty words, even as the group continues to spread violence and hatred across the country. The terrorist network has no plans to honestly discuss peace, as it is nowhere in its ideology to accept compromise from those it deems infidels.