In a curious development highlighting the confusion in Pakistan's tribal areas, the Taliban announced Wednesday it had declared a cease-fire with Pakistani forces. But Pakistani forces promptly denied it.
It appears that the militants in the tribal belt are maneuvering for time and space. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has recently been trying to turn the Taliban's attentions toward Afghanistan, not Pakistan. This cease-fire claim could represent an effort to call off Pakistan operations so that the Taliban can refocus and regroup.
If so, the Taliban are seeking to continue a trend that has played out repeatedly since Sept. 11, 2001: When the military has stepped in to contain unruly militants, the militants have reached cease-fires with the Army.
"In the past, these cease-fires have resulted in militants being able to bide more time, build up resources, and then make much more effective attacks," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban."
Most notably, the Army pulled out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) entirely after a 2006 cease-fire in exchange for a promise from tribal chiefs to expel militants. The deal is seen as a failure that allowed the number of Mmilitants to grow tremendously.
Instead of withdrawal, experts say, a cease-fire should lead to greater Pakistani engagement with tribes in FATA, which have ruled themselves with little state interference for a century. But since the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have crossed from Afghanistan into the tribal areas and supplanted local tribal chiefs. They have killed many who opposed them; most moderate tribal leaders have fled to Peshawar or Lahore.
Any solution must include restoring these moderates to power, says Mr. Rashid. "The government has not been prepared to protect [them]," he says. But if they don't return, he adds, "you are leaving the region in the hands of the militants."
The Pakistani Army's response to the supposed cease-fire, however, suggests that nothing is settled yet. "As the miscreants have stopped attacking and firing, so there is a pause," an Army official told Reuters Wednesday. "But the operation will continue."
Regardless of what comes from this bid for a cease-fire, it is important that the military have a plan for what comes next, observers say. "You can't fight forever," says Ismail Khan, who covers the tribal belt for Dawn, a national newspaper. "The operation taking place right now is … to bring the government into a position where it can get a better deal."
This must involve integration of FATA into Pakistan, some say. The decentralized tribal rule represents a power vacuum that militants can easily fill. The isolated region has also fallen behind economically.
Rashid doubts that Pakistan has a strategy for much-needed economic and political reforms in FATA. "Since 2004 we've seen a half dozen [cease-fires], but they haven't solved the problem because there is no sense of what to do next," he says.