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Pakistan's 'Gandhi' party takes on Taliban, Al Qaeda

The Awami National Party, which leads the ruling coalition in the crucial North West Frontier Province, espouses a nonviolent approach to tackling extremism.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 5, 2008

Activists of Awami National Party (ANP) chanted slogans during a May Day rally on May 1. The ANP espouses a nonviolent approach to tackling extremism.

Athar Hussain/Reuters

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New DELHI

In following the will of its people by attempting to find a negotiated solution to mounting extremism, the new Pakistani government is wading against American skepticism, the lessons of the recent past, and – some suggest – its own military establishment.

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Early indications, however, point to the enormousness of the task facing Pakistan's new ruling coalition. The US is likely to increase pressure after a major State Department report last week concluded that Al Qaeda has rebuilt some of its pre-9/11 capabilities from havens in Pakistan's contested border region with Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda and Taliban militants have the upper hand in these Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the region's colonial-era rules limit the new government's authority.

The job of overcoming these obstacles has largely fallen to the overlooked member of Pakistan's new ruling coalition, the Awami National Party (ANP). As Pashtuns, the ANP can talk to the Taliban as ethnic brothers. Yet as disciples of the nonviolence espoused by its late founder, Abdul Ghaffar Khan – the so-called "Frontier Gandhi" and follower of the Mahatma – the ANP is uniquely qualified to attempt peacemaking.

Whether it succeeds could determine whether Pakistan finds the peaceful resolution that a majority of its people so desire or descends back into war.

"The responsibility for a deal lies with the ANP because of the ANP being Pashtun and because they have been very critical of the way the war on terror has been conducted," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Facing opposition to cease-fires

The ANP is a minor partner in the national parliament, but it leads the ruling coalition in the strategically vital North West Frontier Province. Adjacent to the central battleground of FATA, the province is the front line against the Talibanization of Pakistan. Rising militancy in FATA has spilled into it with bombings against barbers who trim beards and owners of DVD shops – both Taliban taboos.

Already, the ANP-led government in the North West Frontier Province has had to withstand global criticism for its new, conciliatory tack – such as last week's release of Sufi Mohammed, a pro-Taliban hard-liner, from jail.

The US has warned against negotiations, saying they lead only to toothless cease-fires that have allowed militants time and space to tighten their grip on territory. Indeed, the State Department's annual terrorism report released last week suggested that suicide attacks in Pakistan more than doubled to 887 last year because terrorists were able to regroup during a 2006 cease-fire.

For this reason, a new potential cease-fire with militants in FATA, reported last week but apparently abandoned, raised deep concern in Washington.

"It's important that any agreement be effectively enforced and that it not interrupt any operations where we are going after terrorists in that area," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

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