In border zone, Pakistan backs off from Taliban

A deal with Islamist rebels is the latest in a foreign policy pendulum that swings between aggression and optimism.

On the eve of the five year anniversary of 9/11, Pakistan's government struck a deal Tuesday with Taliban fighters, handing them what may turn out to be effective control over the tribal border region of North Waziristan.

Their allies will be freed from jail, confiscated weapons will be returned, and the Army will pull back from the check posts it has erected, ending aerial and ground operations. In return, the militants promise to evict foreign fighters and prevent infiltration into Afghanistan.

What looks like a stunning reversal of Pakistan's willingness to prosecute the war on terror is actually another pendulum shift between aggressive military tactics and optimistic deals for tribal support.

But neither approach has worked particularly well over the past five years, and this course has moved Pakistan away from the political reforms that many analysts here think would best combat terrorism and better integrate autonomous zones that have become havens for Islamic militants.

In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has displayed a singular dedication to fighting foreign fighters and their local hosts – often at a great price, both real and political. Pouring 80,000 troops and hardware into the tribal zone, the Pakistani military has lost nearly one man for every Al Qaeda operative – totaling several hundred – it has captured or killed. President Pervez Musharraf has nearly lost his life twice in the fight, after Al Qaeda's suicide bombers trained their sights on him. Few contest this record of sacrificial bravery.

But some say that it has come at a great national price: As the battle against Al Qaeda has mounted, so, too, has the military grown in strength and political influence, becoming in essence the very state it is supposed to serve. That has allowed it to break up Al Qaeda's network, but also to rupture the political landscape, splintering parties and institutions into fragments that can barely challenge its rule.

Today, analysts and members of the opposition claim, Parliament and civil society barely function in the shadows of the Musharraf government. As a consequence, the pillars of legitimacy needed to effectively address the causes of extremism – national consensus, social and political development, local governance – have been removed, leaving the military to address the problem the only way it knows how: with helicopter gunships and ground assaults. These measures have consistently failed, however, sowing widespread outrage that has compelled the government to backtrack, signing peace accords like the one this week.

"This militates against the principle of good governance. With a fragmented political landscape, the capacity of the government to implement its policy against terrorism is also affected," argues Sajjad Naseer, a professor of political science at the Lahore School of Economics.

Focus on Al Qaeda, but others gain

As a result, while Al Qaeda may have been neutralized, there remains the threat of local militant groups, such as the Taliban and indigenous jihadi outfits like Lashkar-i Tayyaba and Jaish-e Muhammed, all of which thrive in the cracks created by poor governance.

Recent attacks suggest that these groups continue to be potent:

•The suicide bombing in March against an American diplomat in Karachi (on Wednesday, police charged two suspects in the case who confessed they brought the explosives for the attack from somewhere in Waziristan);

•The alleged role of Lashkar-i Tayyaba or its offshoots in the July railway bombing in Mumbai (formerly Bombay);

•The apparent Pakistani ties to the London airplane plot, perhaps involving Jaish-e Muhammed and Al Qaeda.

"But what has been done in terms of local jihadi organizations, that provided networks [and] support?" asks Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank. "Look at London. You cannot compartmentalize these groups. They flow from one to the other. They have common goals."

While the government has been adept at plucking Al Qaeda leaders from cities, the border regions have begun to look like the old Afghanistan under Mullah Omar.

In the pine forests covering Dir, a remote area to the north of Waziristan, Osama bin Laden is nowhere to be found, despite rumors of his presence.

But his spirit lives on, reverberating in explosions that increasingly rock the area, two just last week. Local militant groups, whom the police seem unable to identify, are targeting music stores and Internet cafes in the main city, deemed vestiges of Western obscenity. It is, police officials fear, a sign that extremist tendencies are spreading, spilling over from the restive tribal zone to the south.

This was a problem allegedly contained to South Waziristan, where the Taliban have instituted strict religious codes of conduct. They have also hung and decapitated criminals and suspected spies. The state is powerless to stop mob justice there because it is now, according to local journalists and officials, the only kind of justice. In the vacuum, the Taliban have also allegedly carved out the area, which borders Afghanistan, as one of several bases from which to launch attacks against NATO and coalition troops.

South Waziristan deal not effective

It was, ironically, a peace agreement – much like this week's deal – that seems to have enabled all this, say observers. In 2004, the government granted amnesty to militant leaders in South Waziristan and pulled back its troops from check posts. It was widely seen as a failure of Islamabad's military strategy, which proved bloody for both the Army and local civilians. While the government hailed the accord, the area quickly became a vacuum that the Taliban filled. Within a year, Maulana Abdul Malick, a member of the National Assembly from South Waziristan, said the area was "virtually under the control of people who were once on the government's wanted list and foreign militants are roaming around freely."

The stakes are high if North Waziristan's militants or the government default on this week's deal. The area borders on eastern provinces in Afghanistan, where NATO troops are to assume military command in coming weeks. Some fear it could become, as South Waziristan already is, another launchpad for cross-border assaults.

On Wednesday, Musharraf, meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, called the accord a symbol of his commitment to crushing the Taliban. The White House reacted by saying it is not concerned.

But many here argue that the government seems able to cut deals only with militants, but won't engage with the country's own political parties.

"It shows us that the survival interests are far greater in the imagination of the military rulers than the larger national interest for political reconciliation," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. The government, he says, seems unable to deal with Nawaz Sharif or Benazir Bhutto, the two former prime ministers now blocked from returning to contest elections in 2007.

Those elections provide a new chance to address the problem, analysts say, by allowing a democratic government to tackle terrorism through national consensus. "Democracies are better equipped to deal with these issues than the military," says Mr. Rais.

Others concur, pointing out that a healthy democracy would most likely avoid making deals like the one this week.

"Had there been a representative government, there wouldn't be this deal between the Talibs and the government," says Ahmed. "It would have been debated in Parliament."

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