After a rare gathering of top military officials and the heads of more than 50 political and religious parties, Pakistan's government has announced that it would negotiate with the militants in the tribal belt along Afghan border rather than dealing with them militarily. The decision marks a significant shift in Pakistan's tactics since the war on terror began after Sept. 11, 2001, and it comes at a time of tense public relations between Pakistan and the United States.
“Pakistan must initiate dialogue with a view to negotiating peace with our own people in the tribal areas,” reads a statement issued after the Sept. 29 meeting in Islamabad. “…There has to be a new direction and policy with a focus on peace and reconciliation. ‘Give peace a chance’ must be the guiding central principle henceforth,” reads the statement.
The ten-hour meeting – called an all-parties conference – was held in the wake of a steady decline in relations between Washington and its frontline ally, Pakistan, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces on Pakistani soil in May 2011, and after last week's direct assault on the US Embassy in Kabul by a Pakistan-based militant group, the Haqqani network.
US military officials have long grumbled privately of their feeling that Pakistan was not doing as much as it could to rein in groups like the Haqqani network, based in Pakistan's Waziristan district, or the Peshawar and Quetta-based factions of the Taliban. But when retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke openly his belief that the insurgent Haqqani network was a "veritable arm" of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence department (ISI), his statement caused a media storm in Pakistan and fierce denials from Islamabad.
Admiral Mullen's accusations triggered apprehensions here that the US may launch military action in Pakistan or conduct more raids similar to the Bin Laden operation, or that it may cut financial aid to Pakistan.
As a sign of how seriously Pakistani officials took the charges, the country's most powerful military chiefs, including Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, and the ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, attended the meeting, hoping to send a strong message of unity to Washington. ISI chief Pasha, in his in-camera briefing, dismissed the allegations and said the spy agency was not exporting terrorism in Afghanistan and has no links with the Haqqanis, according to the politicians attended the briefing.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan will not bow to US pressure to step up its fight against militancy.
"Pakistan cannot be pressured to do more, and our national interests should be respected," Mr. Gilani told the meeting.
Now, Pakistan must finalize the “proper mechanism” for engaging the militants into negotiations.
Pakistan's military has deployed around 150,000 troops in the semi-autonomous tribal belt along Afghan border and is engaged in fighting with Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban militants, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
This military activity has carried a heavy political cost, analysts say, as Pakistani Taliban militants have carried out a series of deadly suicide attacks against sensitive military installations, including its headquarters and against the Mehran naval base near Karachi, in a wave of violence that has claimed thousands of lives.
“When America is adopting the policy of reconciliation with Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, why can’t we go for dialogue with militant groups in Pakistan?” said Haider Abbas Rizvi, a key legislator of the powerful Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movment (MQM), after attending the Islamabad conference.
The negotiations will be held only with those militants who recognize Pakistan’s constitution, Mr. Rizvi said, and not with foreign militants. Pakistan’s soil will not be allowed to use for any kind of terrorism, he added.
“Military operations are not the solution," said Imran Khan, a former cricket star-turned-politician, known for his strong anti-US views. "It didn’t work for America in Afghanistan, and it won’t be effective even today. Time has come to talk peace so let’s give peace a chance.”
The pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, who also attended the conference, said, “America, after facing humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, wants to push Pakistan deep into the war. We should not fight with our own people for somebody else’s vested gains.”
But analysts believe that striking negotiations with Islamic militants will pose serious challenges.
“We struck peace accords with militant commanders during the past and those blew up on our face,” says Peshawar-based defense analyst, retired Brig. Mohammad Saad. “Once you enter into negotiations, they [the militants] grow bigger than their size and start believing themselves as equal. The more the state talks to them, they will become a bigger problem in Pakistan.”
“Their agenda is different," Brigadier Saad adds. "Their ideology is in clash with the norms and values of any modern civilized society.”
The military struck peace alliances with Taliban militant commanders including Naik Mohammad and Baitullah Mehsud, both of whom were later killed by US missiles in Pakistan's semi-autonomous South Waziristan district. In 2008, a provincial ruling party called the Awami National Party signed a peace accord with Taliban leaders in Swat in February 2009 and allowed them to implement Islamic sharia law in the Swat valley. But in return, the Taliban denounced Pakistan’s constitution and its parliament, and tried to extend strict Islamic laws beyond the Swat Valley to the rest of Pakistan. Pakistan's military eventually moved into the Swat valley in May 2009 and pushed out the Taliban with military force.
Reaching out to the Pakistani Taliban will be problematic, because the terrain occupied by the Taliban is difficult to travel in, and the local population of religiously conservative tribesmen show strong support for the Taliban.
Even more difficult is determining who actually is in a position to negotiate on behalf of the main militant group, the TTP. The TTP, which is still controlling parts of Pakistan's tribal belt along the Afghan border, is a cluster of many militant outfits with different backgrounds and carrying different ideologies, unlike Afghan Taliban-led by Mullah Omar.
“So today it's much more difficult to talk to the militants and it's quite hard to bring Pakistani Taliban on to the negotiating table and much harder will be to reach a consensus with them with various ideologies,” says Washington-based analyst, Imtiaz Ali, a research fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). “Apparently they may look weaker because of the continuous military operations against them but there are so many groups. So the big question will be whom to talk to.”
The other question will be who represents the government. “If they choose pro-Taliban clerics and religious leaders, they will mess it up because they deep down share their (the militants') views so there can’t be any legitimacy,” says Khadim Hussain, director at Ariana independent think-tank in Islamabad. “The talks will carry legitimacy if the negotiators are moderate and influential political figures. I believe they should adopt a model like Afghanistan’s Peace Council headed by slain [former Afghan president Burhanuddin] Rabbani.”