Earlier this week, Pakistani authorities freed a leading pro-Taliban militant who reportedly raised an army of thousands to oppose the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Observers say Maulana Sufi Muhammad's release from prison heralds a new era of negotiation between militant groups and the new government in Islamabad.
Following the release, a ruling party official in the new Pakistani government said that envoys were engaged in talks with the Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan, in an apparent bid to secure a peace deal, reports the Associated Press.
The tribe includes Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's top Taliban leader who is accused of ties to al-Qaida.
Mehsud is wanted for a string of suicide attacks in Pakistan. The previous government has accused him of [former Prime Minister Benazir] Bhutto's assassination in December. Mehsud has reportedly denied involvement and Bhutto's party has not repeated the assertion.
On Monday, the Pakistani daily Dawn reports that Sufi Muhammad, leader of the guerrilla group Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM), or the Movement to Enforce Islamic Laws, was released Monday after six years in detention. His release came after a six-point agreement between TNSM and the government.
He was released ... following an agreement with leaders of the banned organisation who denounced militancy and condemned the elements involved in attacks on state institutions, police and other law-enforcement agencies....
"The organisation (TNSM) respects the government of Pakistan and state institutions so that peace and the writ of the state is restored in Malakand region," said the agreement signed at the Chief Minister's House....
Under the agreement the TNSM pledged to continue its struggle for the enforcement of Shariat by peaceful means.
Sufi Muhammad rose to prominence in the mid 90s during Benazir Bhutto's regime, Asia Times Online writes. His group agitated for a strict interpretation of Islamic law and eventually forced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to declare Islamic laws for the picturesque Swat Valley in northern Pakistan.
After September 11, 2001, Sufi gathered approximately 10,000 untrained armed men to fight against the US invasion of Afghanistan, despite Taliban leader Mullah Omar's opposition. Most of them were either killed or arrested by the Americans or kidnapped by local warlords for ransom. Sufi managed to escape unhurt from Afghanistan, only to be arrested at the border and jailed in Pakistan.
In his absence, the TNSM regrouped under Maulana Muhammad Alam and was allowed to operate with the tacit consent of the ISI [the Pakistani Intelligence Agency]. But Sufi's son-in-law Mullah Fazlullah, who had become radicalized after meeting al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, wanted to take the group in a different direction.
Fazlullah remains at large, running his own renegade version of TNSM that is aligned to Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. He has established his own popular radio station, dubbed "Mullah radio," which delivers fiery antigovernment speeches, and he has ignored pleas from the ISI and Sufi Muhammad to moderate his tone. While he insists that Sufi Muhammad's release will not affect the Swat Valley insurgency, it is unclear what relationship his section of TNSM will have to Sufi Muhammad's.
...[B]ecause of his high profile, [a former State Department official] said, his release is a significant development that is sure not to sit well with the United States – a key ally that funnels billions of dollars to Pakistan to fight terrorists along the Afghan border.
Washington would prefer to pursue a more hard-line policy against the insurgents, The New York Times says, by increasing American military incursions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – something Islamabad is keen to avoid in order to ensure the success of negotiations and maintain the popularity of its young government.
American commanders in Afghanistan have in recent months urged a widening of the war that could include American attacks on indigenous Pakistani militants in the tribal areas inside Pakistan, according to United States officials.
The requests have been rebuffed for now, the officials said, after deliberations in Washington among senior Bush administration officials who fear that attacking Pakistani radicals may anger Pakistan's new government, which is negotiating with the militants, and destabilize an already fragile security situation.
The New York Times report continues,
A few weeks after Ms. Bhutto's assassination in December, two senior American intelligence officials reached a quiet understanding with Mr. Musharraf to intensify secret strikes against suspected terrorists by Predator aircraft launched in Pakistan.
American officials have expressed alarm that the leaders of Pakistan's new coalition government, Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), are negotiating with militants believed to be responsible for an increasing number of suicide attacks against the security forces and political figures.
The new Pakistani government's resistance to US military operations may be sign of a more independent stance than Musharraf's previous dealings with the Americans indicated. The Guardian suggests that Islamabad's new approach is also causing strategic differences between the US and Britain, close allies in the "War on Terror."
David Miliband [the British Foreign Secretary], making a get-to-know-you visit [to Pakistan] on Monday, gave the new policy a cautious welcome. "We need a far greater degree of precision and detail when we are talking about reconciliation - reconciliation with whom, reconciliation in aid of what?" Britain's foreign secretary said.
Deals that created safe spaces and freedom of operation for terrorist groups, such as that struck by Musharraf in Waziristan last year, would not work, Miliband suggested. Deals that involved militants renouncing violence, as Sufi Muhammad reportedly has done, might be more attractive.
Not unusually, Britain is saying quietly and in a roundabout way what the Americans, or at least influential portions of the Bush administration, would prefer to state far more forcefully.
Regardless of Western perceptions, some Pakistani officials insist that Muhammad's release heralds a new era in regional politics. Reuters reports that an Al Qaeda-linked militant commander has declared a cease-fire. But the news agency also says:
...[T]he prospect of peace pacts with militants based in lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border has raised concern as critics say deals only give militants the opportunity to regroup and intensify their attacks in Afghanistan."