Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pakistan: Peace Deal Between Islamabad, Pro-Taliban Militants Rankles U.S.

Taliban militants in Pakistan's border region in March 2008 (AFP) Pakistan's new government is close to signing a peace accord with pro-Taliban militants as part of a softer counterterrorism policy from Islamabad that deemphasizes military strikes and calls for U.S. forces to show more restraint in the area.

Britain has expressed reservations about the strategy, and Washington has said it wants Pakistani forces to continue fighting insurgents in the tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan.

Reports from Pakistan said a top leader of pro-Taliban militants has directed his fighters to "immediately cease their activities" in connection with the deal.

The reports come as the new Pakistani government of Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani moves toward signing the peace accord, with militants in the volatile tribal regions near the Afghan border where some believe that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is hiding.

Under the proposed deal, pro-Taliban militants would order their fighters to stop using violence and stop sheltering or giving support to foreign Al-Qaeda fighters. In return, Pakistani government troops would be gradually withdrawn from the region.

The orders to the militants were reportedly issued in pamphlets on April 23 by Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the country's umbrella militant group Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The pamphlets say militants who violate Mehsud's directives "will be publicly punished."

"If [Mehsud] has said it, we welcome it," Rehman Malik, a senior Pakistani Interior Ministry official, said of Mehsud's reported call for a cease-fire. "We should welcome any good step."

The new government in Islamabad, which came to power as a result of elections in February, has drafted a six-point peace plan that is expected to be signed soon with the pro-Taliban militants in the restive tribal region of South Waziristan.

In Good Faith?

Mehsud -- who has been linked to Al-Qaeda and is accused of organizing the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December -- is entrenched in South Waziristan near the border with Afghanistan along with thousands of his loyal fighters.

Malik said the peace deal would not bring an end to an investigation into allegations that Mehsud was involved in Bhutto's assassination.

"According to the newspaper reports I have seen, [Mehsud] has categorically denied it. But an investigation will take its own course," Malik said. "I assure the nation that whoever has [killed Bhutto] is not going to escape the clutches of the law."

In what was seen by security analysts as a good-faith gesture by the government, authorities in the Northwest Frontier Province on April 21 released a high-ranking pro-Taliban mullah, Sufi Mohammad.

A draft of the six-point peace agreement makes no mention of cross-border attacks into Afghanistan by militants.

But Latiff Afridi, an influential Pashtun political leader in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he is confident the militants would also stop incursions into Afghanistan under the accord.

"The group of Sufi Mohammad has gone through different experiences in recent years," Afridi said. "This group sent thousands of fighters into Afghanistan in 2002, but these circumstances have now changed fully. [Sufi Mohammad's people] have assured that those who choose ways other than peaceful ones for their movement -- those who commit violence -- will be violating Shari'a law. And this is wrong."

Western Reaction

On a trip to Pakistan this week to meet the new government, British Foreign Secretary David Milliband gave Islamabad's new policy a cautious welcome.

But Milliband suggested deals that create safe havens for terrorists -- like a failed accord made last year in Waziristan by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- will not work. Milliband said reconciliation deals require a "far greater degree" of precision and detail.

"We should negotiate with those who are willing to negotiate, and we should reconcile with those who are willing to reconcile," Milliband said. "Even in the Irish situation, large numbers of people did reconcile. But some refused to reconcile. And we did not negotiate with those who refused to reconcile. Those who are willing to renounce violence, I think it's important to reconcile with them."

Meanwhile, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has suggested that Islamabad is leaving the option open for military force if militants fail to comply with their obligations under the proposed deal. "The government would want to give dialogue and reconciliation its utmost full chance," Qureshi said. "But, on the other hand, if we feel that the spirit behind this initiative is not being met, well, other options are there."

In Washington, there were concerns that an accord between Islamabad and pro-Taliban or Al-Qaeda linked militants would merely allow terrorists to regroup and bolster their strength.

Officials at the Pentagon said there is a growing threat of attacks against the United States and Western Europe from Al-Qaeda militants who are thought to be sheltering in Pakistan's tribal regions -- a threat so serious that it requires the use of military force.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Washington was encouraging Pakistani government forces "to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations" aimed at denying militants a safe haven in the tribal regions.

But Rahul Bedi, a New Delhi-based correspondent for "Jane's Defence Weekly," tells RFE/RL that U.S. military activity in the tribal regions has become more politically complicated in recent months because Washington's key ally in Pakistan -- President Musharraf -- has been politically sidelined.

Bedi said continued military operations in the tribal regions that "divide Pakistan and Afghanistan" -- especially those involving support from U.S. forces -- could undermine the new government in Islamabad.

"The writ of the Pakistan government doesn't run there. And a lot of the militants have bases in these tribal areas -- particularly in places like South Waziristan and North Waziristan. That is what is causing the problems for the NATO forces as well as the American forces in Afghanistan, because the militants retreat to these bases in this no-man's land, regroup, and rearm themselves, and come in [to Afghanistan again]," Bedi says.

"This technically is Pakistani territory; with the American forces reportedly planning cross-border attacks with unmanned [aircraft] or artillery or even special forces, infringements into this area are going to cause a lot of problems -- not only for the Pakistani government but also for the tribals," he adds. "The tribals are very opposed to the Americans and any form of incursion is going to be met with a lot of resistance."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on Afghanistan by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report."