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.

Athar Hussain/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

The White House was right to be worried, some experts agree. "The government is negotiating from a position of weakness," says Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp., a security consultancy in Arlington, Va. "There should be no illusions – these [militant] groups are trying to strengthen their position."

Army 'capitulated' to militants

But others see another dynamic at work in the scrapped cease-fire, too.

"The military is out to save itself," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban," a book considered one of the most insightful looks into the group.

He suggests that the failed deal was not the fault of the new government, but of the Army, which wields great influence in FATA, because it is controlled federally. The deal was essentially a capitulation to militants, Mr. Rashid adds, because the Army wants to get out of an unpopular campaign.

The military denies this, saying it is not in any direct negotiations with the Taliban. "The government officials are negotiating with them through interlocutors," says Maj. Gen. Atthar Abbas, an Army spokesman.

Yet due to the peculiar rules governing FATA, the Army does have more of a voice there. In the North West Frontier Province, the only government negotiators are new lawmakers. In FATA, however, talks are being supervised by a governor appointed by President Musharraf, and the regional Army corps commander, in addition to federal lawmakers, says Rahim Dad Khan, a member of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), an ANP ally.

ANP pushes for more accountability

The ANP, for its part, wants to bring more accountability to negotiations by putting all the facts before the people. Past negotiations under the military-led government were never made public, says Sen. Zahid Khan of the ANP. So when agreements inevitably fell apart amid accusations and counteraccusations, no one knew who was right.

"We'll make all the developments in the talks public so as the masses can judge who is backing out of his words," he says. "The party going against the agreement would have to take the ire of the masses."

In this way, negotiations can serve a strategic purpose. Defense analyst Ikram Sehgal says there are many natural points of disagreement between Pashtun tribals and foreign terrorists, such as the tactic of suicide bombing.

"Terrorist ideology is completely anathema to tribal ideology," he says. "The whole idea is to drive a wedge between the tribals and the terrorists."

Yet Rashid and others say that to ultimately succeed, the government must have a policy beyond just talks – or bullets, for that matter. The government of North West Frontier Province has drawn a $4 billion development plan designed to spread the authority of the government through new counsels and government positions. But it must address the root causes of the tribal belt's problems – the economic backwardness and political isolation that have made the area a haven for militants, analysts add.

"They have to offer some strategic vision," says Rashid. "[The terrorists] want sharia. What are you offering?"

• A contributor from Karachi, Pakistan, and Ghulam Dastageer from Peshawar supplied material.

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