Pakistan's strategy in the war on terrorism took a dramatic turn on Saturday, when the country's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, announced that his government would seek peace with the Taliban. The announcement could confirm speculation by United States officials that the newly elected Pakistan government would reduce its military operations and possibly strain US-Pakistan relations.
The prime minister's announcement was reported in Pakistan's The Daily Times, a leading English language daily:
Yousaf Raza Gillani said on Saturday that fighting terrorism would be "his top priority and offered to hold talks with those militants who laid down their weapons.
"We are ready to talk to all those people who give up arms and are ready to embrace peace," Gillani told parliament, prompting loud support from lawmakers.
The Pakistani Taliban quickly lauded Mr. Gillani's offer, but bluntly warned against the Pakistani government's continued cooperation with the United States, says Dawn, another English language newspaper in Pakistan.
"Taliban are patriotic people and do not want to fight with their own government. We have waged jihad against America. But the country will suffer as long as Pakistan remains an ally of the US in the ongoing war on terror in the region," [Taliban leader] Maulvi Faqir said.
The development is one of a series that suggests a concerted effort in Pakistan to change course on President Pervez Musharraf's years of waging war against militants. Last week, the newly elected government of the North West Frontier Province announced that it would end military operations in Swat, where the Pakistani military has been battling an Islamic insurgency since November, reports The Daily Times.
"The new government will withdraw the army from Swat and end "violence in the name of war and terror," Awami National Party (ANP) President Asfandyar Wali said on Thursday.
The A.N.P. says its priority is ending the violence. Like its partners in the national government – the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N – it backs relying less on the military to cut civilian casualties, which have soured Pakistanis on the war. To do so, it proposes development in the tribal areas and a sustained dialogue that, it hopes, will answer many grievances with the government that have pushed ethnic groups toward the militants.
It wants constitutional changes to give the provinces greater autonomy and more consultation in choosing the provincial governor, who is appointed by the government in Islamabad, the capital, and has direct influence over the tribal areas. An additional long-term aim is to allow political parties to work in the tribal areas and bring the region into the mainstream of Pakistani politics.
The A.N.P.'s leaders say their strength comes from the Pashtun tribal tradition of the hujra: traditionally, the landowner's reception room, where guests are received, disputes solved and decisions made by the elders.
These proposed changes come as the director of the CIA warned over the weekend that Al Qaeda has "established a safe haven in the tribal areas near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan," reports Voice of America.
The CIA Director, Air Force General Michael Hayden, says if there were another terrorist attack against the United States, it would almost certainly originate from that region.
"What I can tell you about is the situation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which presents a clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and to the West in general and to the United States in particular," said Michael Hayden.
Pakistan last year faced record levels of violence: more than 800 people were killed in a series of suicide bombings. Washington is so deeply worried that it has stepped up controversial air strikes against militant targets inside Pakistan, according to The Washington Post.
The United States has escalated its unilateral strikes against al-Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan's tribal areas, partly because of anxieties that Pakistan's new leaders will insist on scaling back military operations in that country, according to U.S. officials.
Washington is worried that pro-Western President Pervez Musharraf, who has generally supported the U.S. strikes, will almost certainly have reduced powers in the months ahead, and so it wants to inflict as much damage as it can to al-Qaeda's network now, the officials said.
Over the past two months, U.S.-controlled Predator aircraft are known to have struck at least three sites used by al-Qaeda operatives. The moves followed a tacit understanding with Musharraf and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani that allows U.S. strikes on foreign fighters operating in Pakistan, but not against the Pakistani Taliban, the officials said.
The divergent policies are leading to a rift between Pakistan and Washington. Last week, government officials in Islamabad sharply rebuked visiting US envoy Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Richard A. Boucher, assistant secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, according to Dawn. Particularly outspoken was Nawaz Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the second largest party in the new government.
"Pakistan wants to see peace in every country, including the US. However, to ensure peace in other countries, we cannot turn our own country into killing fields," Mr Sharif said in categorical terms.