Peshawar: The Pakistani government is close to an agreement to end hostilities with the most militant tribes in its turbulent border area, whose main leader is accused of orchestrating most of the suicide bombings of recent months and the assassination of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
A 15-point draft of the accord, which was shown to The New York Times, called for an end to militant activity and an exchange of prisoners in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from part of the tribal region of South Waziristan.
Even as the accord, a far-reaching draft that essentially forbids the tribes from engaging in nearly all illegal actions, was being negotiated by the government through tribal elders, the militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, ordered his fighters to cease activities in the tribal regions as well as the adjoining North-West Frontier Province, warning of strict punishment to any violators.
Terror spell: A 17 April photo shows a paramilitary soldier standing guard as residents leave an area affected by clashes between two rival factions in the Khyber tribal agency near Peshawar. (Photo: Reuters)
American and Afghan officials were immediately sceptical of a deal with Mehsud, one of Pakistan’s most hardline militants. “We have seen the agreements they have made before, and they do not work,” said one US official, referring to an agreement in North Waziristan in September 2006, which was blamed for strengthening the militants and a surge in cross-border attacks against US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO forces in Afghanistan.
“We are concerned about it,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in Washington, referring to the possibility of an accord, “and what we encourage them to do is to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there.”
The approach to Mehsud followed pledges by the new government to make a break with the policies president Pervez Musharraf has embraced in recent years, to pursue dialogue with the militants and to restore calm to Pakistan, which has been roiled by suicide attacks. Diplomats and Afghan officials suggested that the government was trying to show good will, while playing for time to bring stability.
Though Musharraf, too, negotiated with the militants, he used the military in the tribal areas in a way that many Pakistanis criticized as heavy handed, losing hundreds of troops in the fighting.
The US has consistently discouraged negotiations with militants—what US deputy secretary of state John D. Negroponte described as “irreconcilable elements” during a visit to Pakistan. “I don’t see how you can talk with those kinds of people,” he said.
Mehsud, perhaps Pakistan’s most notorious militant, leads an umbrella group of the militants in the border areas, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan. Pakistan’s previous government and US officials have said a communications interception linked him to Bhutto’s assassination, and a Pakistani court has charged Mehsud in absentia with planning the attack.
Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and other members of her party have cast doubt on the previous government’s version of events, however.
In Washington, assistant secretary of state Richard A. Boucher said the US viewed the negotiations as a tactic, acknowledging that it had been tried before by Musharraf. The concern was follow-through and enforcement, he said.
The draft agreement, which was approved by senior political leaders, has the backing of the military establishment, officials here said. They said the go-ahead for the talks was given at an 15 April meeting in Islamabad of top leaders of the new coalition government, which includes Bhutto’s party, now run by Zardari.
The Awami National Party chief, Asfandyar Wali Khan, briefed his own coalition partners and obtained their consent, too, the officials said.
One official said that during an earlier briefing, on 2 April, the chief of army staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, told prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and the heads of the coalition parties that the military would take its cue from the political leadership on matters of internal security, including peace talks with militants and any military action.
Members of the government could not be reached for comment. Zahid Khan, a government official from the Awami National Party in Peshawar, confirmed negotiations were going on with the Mehsud tribe, not with Mehsud directly, but said the central government was in charge of dealing with the tribal areas.
According to the draft document, the deal would be signed between the political administrator of South Waziristan and the tribal elders of the Mehsud tribes there.
It would require the Mehsud tribes to cease attacks and stop kidnapping officials, to open all roads and to allow freedom of movement to the Frontier Corps, the local security force. They would also promise not to carry out terrorist acts, including the tribal regions, and not to assist others in attacks, or allow their territory to be used for anti-state activity.
The draft requires the Mehsuds to respect state authority and resolve any problems through the local political administration, which would respect local customs and cooperate with tribal elders. It also requires the Mehsuds to assist the government in development plans for the region.
It also requires the Mehsuds to expel foreign militants from their territory and deny them shelter in the future.
In return, both sides would exchange prisoners and the government would withdraw regular army troops from Mehsud territory in a gradual, phased manner.
One official expressed caution over the document and said the agreement was still not complete. “It involves tough bargaining,” the official said. “By no means is it simple and easy.”
©2008/ The New York Times