May Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 16 years ago

Children crying, men and women desperately searching for their loved ones, blood splattered all over the walls, and you are scared of walking over some body part — this is the sight of a terrorist attack. A month ago such pictures had almost become an everyday story. No city was safe from terrorist attacks and it was difficult to imagine a way out. And now another set of peace deals is in the offing which, it is hoped, would bring down the incidence of violence. The question is: Will this work?

Currently two separate deals are being negotiated. The first one is between the political agents of the Frontier government and representatives of the tribal elders of the Mehsud tribe. According to this latest deal, the tribe will ensure that government security forces are not attacked, foreign terrorists are ousted from South Waziristan and development work is carried out in the area without any hindrance. The tribal elders have also agreed to curb and punish anyone who violates the agreement. The other deal is between the Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) and the government, according to which, the organisation would desist from violence and resolve issues through dialogue. Resultantly, the government recently released TNSM chief Sufi Mohammad, who had been under arrest since 2001.

The current peace deals have evoked a mixed reaction. While there is a lot of caution in western capitals, some analysts in Pakistan argue that this peace deal will work because it is between an elected government and tribal elders instead of militants. The peace initiative itself is part of the new civilian regime’s programme to talk to the militants instead of using purely military options.

For the past few months, the government in Islamabad had been trying to convince its American and NATO allies to desist from using military force in the tribal areas. The US forces had employed drones to target suspected terrorist hideouts in the tribal areas, which created more bad blood between the militants and the military, resulting in a series of suicide attacks against the military and other government agencies in mainland Pakistan. Islamabad wants to cut its costs in fighting the war on terror by talking with the militants.

The current scenario raises two questions: is there a difference of opinion between the US and Pakistan, and will this strategy work?

The new regime’s pronouncement regarding the war on terror gives an impression that there is a difference of opinion between Washington and Islamabad on how the war is to be fought. In fact, if anything, there is a lack of consensus in Washington regarding the handling of terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is a segment of American policymakers and the larger security community, who believe that the militants must be engaged through a dialogue, with the hope of creating divisions between the various segments of the militants that could later be used to the advantage of the allies in the war on terror. This strategy is similar to what is being tried in Iraq. The release of Sufi Mohammad, for example, is meant to create a bulwark against the activities of Sufi Mohammad’s son-in-law, Maulvi Fazlullah, who created havoc in Swat and the adjoining areas. Another set of American policymakers, on the other hand, are extremely nervous with the idea of a dialogue. They believe it will not work and would fail like the earlier deals struck between the Pakistani government and the militants in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

In 2004, a deal was cut with Nek Mohammad, one of the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, according to which money was paid to the Taliban. However, the deal did not last very long. Then, in 2005, two deals were signed in South Waziristan with a Nek Mohammad loyalist, Baitullah Mehsud, who is now wanted in Benazir Bhutto’s murder. The deal stipulated the withdrawal of government troops to designated camps and forts, ceasing ground attacks and air assaults, and dismantling the 12 checkpoints set up to hunt down the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Again, in 2006, another deal was signed in which the military agreed to pay Rs.230 million to the Taliban, return their seized weapons and release 132 militants. However, the peace accords failed, which, according to the ANP’s information secretary Zahid Khan, was because the peace deal was between the military and the Taliban. Hence, in his visit to Pakistan on the day of the swearing-in of Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gillani, US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte raised questions about whom Islamabad will talk to and whether talks would reap any dividends.

The militants operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan are a diverse group. According to an assessment by Steve Coll, who is the writer of the famous book, The Ghost Wars, there are four kinds of militant groups: (a) Al Qaeda — operating mainly in North Waziristan, the group includes Uzbeks and Arabs. According to Coll’s estimates, the core Arab group comprises 300-400 members; (b) the Afghan Taliban — with its senior leadership based in Pakistan, the group mainly operates across the border in Afghanistan. The writer describes it as a top-heavy leadership group, under the command of Mullah Omar, which has connections with locally oriented councils in Quetta, Miranshah, Peshawar, etc.; (c) the Pakistani Taliban — a group that crosses tribal, ethnic, and linguistic divisions. The Pakistani Taliban have moved away from their Pakhtun origins, which is the source of its success at the moment. Its goals mirror those of the Afghan Taliban: establishing an emirate under their conception of Islamic law. Baitullah Mehsud is the nominal emir of this group, whose formal establishment was announced only in the last six to seven months. The extent to which the Pakistani Taliban controls territory — in FATA, sections of the NWFP, and Balochistan — is striking. They operate along a familiar model: delivering a comprehensive set of services, adjudicating disputes, etc. While not as sophisticated as Hamas or Hizbullah, and not drawing from the professional classes to the same degree, the Pakistani Taliban are, nonetheless, more “three-dimensional” than expected. The Pakistani Taliban are trying to control territory through extensive media operations by broadcasting on FM radio in Pakistan; and (d) other militants — also referred to as the Punjabi Taliban, it comprises groups fighting in Kashmir or engaging India. Some of these groups are breaking away, traveling west, and connecting with the Pakistani Taliban. The Red Mosque siege has attracted a diverse group of younger, more action-oriented radicals, a substantial number of whom, despite being non-Pashtun speakers, have traveled west to Swat and elsewhere. The diversity of these groups and the “looseness” of their violent nihilist agenda is a source of potential difficulty for the Pakistani Taliban leadership trying to assert control out of South Waziristan.

While they have their independent agendas, these groups or networks are connected as well. For example, a number of Pakistani Taliban or other groups have, in the past, sought financial help from Al-Qaeda. The diversity of these groups is a major hindrance to peace.

However, the more important question is, will the government and the militant negotiations succeed? Tactically, the negotiations will provide a short-term and immediate relief to the security forces and to the Taliban. The recent suicide attacks inside mainland Pakistan, that is Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore, indicate the penetration of these extremist forces and their ability to punish the government, including the military, for what they view as a sudden abandonment at the behest of the US. The series of suicide attacks, including the one which killed Benazir Bhutto, resulted in a lot of pressure which would partially dissipate due to the peace deal. The ANP spokesperson Zahid Khan was of the view that the new deal is different because it is with the tribal leaders of the Mehsuds and not with the militant leaders. Moreover, it is between an elected government and the tribal leaders and not between the military and the militants. Such statements give an impression that the agreement is over and above the military, which is not true. The implementation of the plan includes the military. Furthermore, the military can never be taken out of the equation as long as some of the militant groups or individuals are held as the military’s ‘assets.’

Strategically, what will the government negotiate since one of the major demands is to oust American forces and impose Shariah. Since Islamabad has no control over the US, it will be difficult to uphold the peace deal for long. The same applies to the imposition of Shariah. How can the Pakistani government afford to implement this set of laws at gunpoint?

Also, it does not sound probable that the militants will allow the government to introduce development. Infrastructure development and improvement of socioeconomic conditions will challenge their authority, unless there is a consensus among the tribal leaders to dump the Taliban or other terrorist networks. The coming months will show whether the plan works at all. In fact, the next 12-16 months are critical in terms of the fight between the militants and the Pakistani government. If the peace deal does not work, the Taliban will push for more territory.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter