New ways to quell Al Qaeda?

Pakistan's new leaders go soft with jihadists. But that takes hard tactics to pull off.

Americans can hardly complain that Pakistan is on the verge of a deal with jihadists. The US has already done a similar deal with Iraqi Sunni terrorists. In both cases, a prime goal is simply to isolate Al Qaeda.

In Iraq, the US military's payoffs of radical Sunni leaders since 2005 have largely achieved that aim. The former terrorists now openly oppose Al Qaeda, which appears to be on the run in Sunni areas.

In Pakistan, the stakes are even higher, with a new government trying to strike a pact with the local Taliban. Osama bin Laden probably operates somewhere along the 350-mile border, working in cahoots with Taliban terrorists from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Al Qaeda is planning another 9/11-style attack, that area is the launching pad.

Negotiating with one type of terrorist in order to isolate more-lethal terrorists has become a necessary but distasteful part of the post-Sept. 11 world. While President Bush has had to back into such a hold-your-nose tactic in Iraq, one issue in the Democratic primaries is whether the US should often negotiate with its enemies, such as Iran. Barack Obama says he would, and events unfolding in Pakistan serve as a current test case of that let's-talk approach.

For Pakistan, this isn't the first time it has cut deals with Islamic terrorists in the largely autonomous tribal areas. President Pervez Musharraf made three agreements with such groups from 2004 to 2006 – and all failed. But the former general, who came to power in a 1999 coup, was seen after 9/11 as doing US bidding in attacking radicals. He lost much of his power in a February parliamentary election and has since been forced to reinstall full democracy to the two civilian political parties that won.

Those parties campaigned on both an anti-US and antiterrorist theme, and now want to prevent suicide bombers from striking within Pakistan again. In fact, their talks are with Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the jihadist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which was accused of setting up the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December.

The deal in the works reportedly includes a truce, a prisoner exchange, and a withdrawal of Pakistani troops from tribal areas. But will it also require this Taliban group to cut ties with Al Qaeda and help prevent attacks in Afghanistan along the border? That's not clear.

The new government hopes to use a truce to regain authority in the border area with massive development and to win over radical groups. But it also risks giving time and freedom for hard-core jihadists to build up their strength, as previous truces did. If the deal doesn't clearly isolate Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, the government is merely pleading for temporary peace out of weakness and for its own survival.

This is the tricky part of entering talks with terrorists or terrorist-backing nations such as Iran: A country needs to be clear going in exactly what it is willing to give up.

Is Pakistan now giving up its commitment to the world to rid its country of Al Qaeda simply in order to keep domestic peace? If so, that's shortsighted, as any sort of jihadism in Pakistan will eventually strike at the country's democracy.

Going "soft" with militants in hopes of reconciliation requires hard tactics. The US still has only a tenuous peace with Iraq's Sunni radicals. Pakistan's could be the same if it gives away too much.

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