U.S. uneasy as Pakistan bargains with militants

Times Staff Writer

The jirgas, or traditional tribal gatherings, continue late into the night.

And every few weeks, from some remote corner of Pakistan’s untamed frontier region, word filters out: Another truce has been struck between the government and a local warlord who commands a band of pro-Taliban fighters.

For nearly two months, Pakistan’s new government has been engaged in intensive negotiations with Islamic militants who use the rugged tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan as both a sanctuary and a springboard for attacks.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. officials have voiced increasing concern over the nature and scope of such negotiations and the resulting agreements. Under them, militant factions have received significant concessions, including the release of dozens of prisoners and the granting of what is in effect amnesty to fugitive commanders who were on most-wanted lists.


The truces, analysts and officials say, reflect Pakistan’s determination to protect its own interests, even as it seeks to reassure the United States that it remains a committed ally in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Of paramount importance to the new government is halting suicide bombings and other attacks in Pakistan. Far less urgency is accorded to stemming the flow of fighters and weapons into Afghanistan, as the West wants Pakistan to do.

NATO says it has tracked a notable increase in cross-border insurgent attacks in Afghanistan since the truce negotiations began.

The state of hair-trigger tension along the frontier was evident in a chaotic clash last week in which Pakistan says 11 of its troops were killed by American airstrikes. The U.S. military, which did not acknowledge responsibility for the deaths, released video that it said showed the strikes were in response to insurgent fire directed at U.S.-backed Afghan forces. The U.S. military is investigating the incident.

Despite steady activity, the new government’s effort to make deals with militants is still in its nascent stages.

No formal accord has been signed yet with the main umbrella group of the Pakistani Taliban, led by a notorious commander named Baitullah Mahsud, based in the South Waziristan tribal agency. Government forces, though, have been giving his fighters a wide berth under informal understandings already reported to be in place.


“The army is never in his territory. When they claim they are, it is only public relations,” said retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, now a Peshawar-based analyst.

‘Jihad’ would continue

In a symbol of his wider influence, Mahsud has signed off on a handful of pacts formalized elsewhere in the tribal areas and in Pakistan’s volatile northwest, according to officials familiar with the negotiations.

Mahsud, who is blamed by Pakistani authorities for attacks, including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has declared that his fighters would not feel bound to refrain from attacking Western troops in Afghanistan, even if they stopped striking Pakistani targets.

The previously reclusive Mahsud last month summoned Pakistani journalists to a news conference at his tribal redoubt, in which he asserted that jihad against the U.S. in Afghanistan remained a praiseworthy aim.

Longtime observers of the conflict in the tribal areas note a striking disconnect between U.S. policy aims in Pakistan and the sentiments of ordinary Pakistanis, particularly in the northwest, where the militancy has its deepest roots.

“Overall, the perception is that this is a war we should not be fighting,” said Rustum Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan. “Are we supposed to let our own territory burn because NATO would be unhappy if we make peace arrangements there?”


In the last year, Pakistan suffered a series of suicide attacks by Islamic militants, at a pace that averaged more than one a week. The attacks were often aimed at government and security installations, but killed and wounded hundreds of civilians as well.

The pervasive sense of insecurity in cities and towns eroded the already flagging popularity of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan’s military campaign against Islamic militants, with its steady toll of troop casualties and the occasional humiliating mass surrender of government forces, also sapped army morale.

Since parliamentary elections in February brought the new ruling coalition to power, suicide bombings have trailed off but not halted. This month, a bomb exploded outside the Danish Embassy in the capital, Islamabad, killing six people. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.

Al Qaeda factor

Pakistan’s new government says that the truce overtures are aimed at homegrown groups, known as local Taliban, and only those who are willing to lay down their weapons.

But some militant commanders who already have reached agreements with the government are believed to have links with Al Qaeda, or at least are sympathetic to their aims.

One of them is Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, whose fighters in the North-West Frontier Province’s Swat Valley, 100 miles north of Islamabad, agreed last month to halt attacks against government troops in exchange for the imposition of Sharia, or Islamic law, in the scenic valley, with Islamic clerics and scholars advising civil judges.


In many areas, observers and analysts say, army commanders are negotiating directly with the militants. Tribal elders are involved in the process to a degree, they say, but no longer serve as crucial intermediaries and arbiters.

“The tribal structure has really broken down,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a leader of the secular Awami National Party that won elections in the North-West Frontier Province this year.

Still, the truces are being discussed and debated in the tribal jirgas, the traditional decision-making forums in which endless cups of sweet tea mask sometimes-bitter disagreements.

Those familiar with the proceedings say heated arguments, though usually couched in indirect and respectful language, have broken out over whether the militants or the Pakistani army can be trusted to stick to the terms of any agreement. Throughout the tribal areas, villagers have suffered at the hands of both.

Pashtun tribes are the overwhelming majority in the border belt, though a minority in the country as a whole. Marshaling a powerful sense of historic grievance, Khattak’s party has tapped into Pashtun nationalist sentiment that it hopes may supplant Islamist militancy.

In a symbolic but freighted gesture, the party, which is also a partner in the new central government, recently secured a pledge to change the name of the North-West Frontier Province, a British colonial holdover, to Pashtunkhwa, or the place of the Pashtuns.


Many longtime observers of the tribal areas, however, believe there is no sophisticated strategic planning by the central coalition government, which is already splintered after only two months in office. There are particularly loud complaints about Rehman Malik, the ranking Interior Ministry official who has been given broad authority in dealings with the militants.

“He doesn’t even understand Pashtu,” scoffed Khalid Aziz, a former provincial chief secretary who runs a think tank in Peshawar. “What insights can he offer about this area, and this situation, which is so complex?”

Those complexities are deepened by the fact that dealings with the semi-autonomous tribal areas are supposed to come under the purview of the president, a post still held by Musharraf.

His foes are seeking to strip him of most of his powers, but in the meantime, the ill-defined lines of authority are creating paralysis.

Some officials say it may be too late to stop militancy from encroaching on Peshawar, the provincial capital.

“The writ of the state has grown very weak, and warlordism has filled the vacuum,” Khattak said. “With these truces or without them, this will not be an easy process to reverse.”