Pakistan's new government finalized another controversial peace deal with Islamic militants in the country's border region this week. It's the latest in a series of efforts to secure promises from militants to stop cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, something that has prompted heightened concerns from US officials.
According to The New York Times, militants in Swat agreed to a cease-fire on the controversial conditions that the new provincial government introduce sharia, or Islamic law, and that the Pakistani military gradually withdraw the 20,000 troops it has in the area.
The senior minister of the [North West Frontier] province, Basher Ahmad Bilour, said that under the terms of the accord, the branch, called the Taliban in Swat, pledged not to attack the security forces.
But it was not clear from the announcement how the deal would be enforced. Nor was it clear what success the authorities would have in separating out what they called hard-line jihadists from other areas.
"We started efforts for the peace agreement months ago, but we managed to sign it on Monday," said [deputy administrator Syed] Ahmad, who also noted the militants promised not to display weapons in the region.
Adding to the controversy, the Daily Times, a leading English language daily in Pakistan, reports:
[The] Taliban will not accept any government condition to stop cross-border movement [into Afghanistan] to finalise a peace deal.
"First, we will not accept such a ban. But we hope the peace deal will be inked without a clause that puts restrictions on mujahideen to cross the border (into Afghanistan)," Abu Zakwan, Taliban commander in the Kotkai area of South Waziristan, told Daily Times on Saturday."
Washington and Pakistan have enjoyed a close political and financial relationship since 9/11, when Pakistan agreed to assist the United States in targeting and apprehending Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, the Associated Press reports.
Since 2001, most of the U.S. aid spent in Pakistan – $5.6 billion – has gone toward reimbursing Pakistan's military for combat operations. About $1.5 billion has paid for military training and equipment, while the rest of the money is devoted to economic aid and other priorities, such as legal reform and local police training."
But the recent peace deals have prompted an avalanche of concern for Western leaders. And that means that funding is coming under fire.
The Bush administration has earmarked $70 million to train and equip Pakistan's Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force stationed on the border with Afghanistan. The Associated Press reports that on Tuesday, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Bush administration to reconsider this and other aid commitments unless Pakistan does more to stop infiltration from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
"Sen. Carl Levin ... told reporters after a three-day trip to the region that U.S. officials have little confidence that segments of the Pakistan government, particularly its army, are working actively to stop the flow of Taliban fighters and weapons into Afghanistan. In some cases, these groups might even be providing support to terrorists, he said.
"If that's our intelligence assessment, then there's a real question as to whether or not we should be putting money into strengthening the Frontier Corps on the Pakistan side," Levin, D-Mich., said in a conference call from Qatar.
Levin is among a growing chorus of Democrats questioning the more than $10 billion in U.S. military and economic aid given to Pakistan to fight terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. Last month, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that despite the money, terrorists are still operating freely along the Afghan border.
Despite the US outcry, Pakistani officials have maintained their right to pursue methods of counterterrorism that ensure national stability, according to the Daily Times.
Pakistan will continue in its efforts for a negotiated settlement in the Tribal Areas despite any 'concerns' expressed by the United States and the United Kingdom, Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar said on Tuesday.
"High-ranking officials and lawmakers of the US and UK have expressed concerns (over talks with the militants) during their recent visits, but we have to address our security concerns first," he told Daily Times during an exclusive interview at the Ministry of Defence.
The controversy comes as Mr. bin Laden is once again said to be hiding in Pakistan, Agence France-Presse reports.
A top Afghan intelligence official said Tuesday his agency received information several months ago that Al-Qaeda figurehead Osama bin Laden is hiding in northern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that bin Laden was said to be in a mountainous region in Chitral, a Pakistani region facing Afghanistan's eastern province of Kunar.
"We've received new information that he is hiding in Chitral. We got the information about his presence in that area about four, five months ago," the Afghan intelligence official said.
The Pakistani government dismissed the report.