Pakistan to talk to Wild Mullahs again?

Pakistan retort squares with Taliban demands
By Amir Mir

ISLAMABAD – In the aftermath of the November 26 air strike that killed 25 Pakistan soldiers at two army check posts, Pakistani authorities are clearly matching up with a set of demands placed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as a pre-requisite to initiate peace talks with the government in Islamabad.

The Pakistan government has reacted sharply to the deadly North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strike, announcing a review of United States ties, the suspension of the NATO supply lines through Khyber Pass and Chaman border crossings and the imposition of a 15-day deadline on the US to vacate the Shamsi Air Base in Balochistan.

All the three actions correspond closely with demands of the TTP made public on November 19 by the militant group’s spokesman as conditions for entering into peace negotiations with the Pakistan government. The passage at an October 18 all-party conference of a resolution endorsing talks with the Taliban had led to rife speculation that peace talks may be underway. Presided over by Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani, the conference was attended by all the key political parties of the country in a bid to bring peace.
Refuting international media reports that the Pakistani Taliban have declared a ceasefire with the government in Islamabad to pave the way for peace talks, the TTP spokesman had declared that in order to make peace with the Taliban, the Pakistan government must cut all ties with the United States, withdraw the security forces from Pakistan-Afghan tribal areas, halt all military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), release all militants from jails, including Pakistani and foreign fighters, announce compensation for those tribal people who have been affected by the military operations and last but not the least, the government should enforce Shariah, Islamic law.

The Pakistan government seems to have accepted the first and the foremost TTP demand – cutting off all ties with the United States by blocking NATO supply routes, ordering Americans to vacate Shamsi and the cancelation of scheduled official delegations between its military and the United States’. Significantly, all these decisions were taken at a meeting of Defence Committee of the Federal Cabinet (DCC), the highest strategic forum which also decided that all arrangements with the US and NATO, including diplomatic, political, and military and intelligence activities, would be reviewed.

Pakistan has already decided to boycott the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, where thorny issues about the withdrawal of the US-led coalition forces from the war-torn country and a dialogue with the Afghan Taliban are to be taken up. Pakistan’s absence from the Bonn Conference is going to be a major setback to the US-led efforts to bring the Afghan Taliban, led by their fugitive chief Mullah Mohammad Omar, to the dialogue table.

Last but not the least, Army Chief General Ashfaq Kiani has ordered his troops to respond to any future “aggression” by US and NATO with “full force” without waiting for directions from the command, regardless of its consequences. “Be assured that we will not let the aggressor walk away easily,” the army chief said in a message for the troops, adding that he had “clearly directed that any act of aggression will be responded with full force, regardless of the cost and consequences”.

Coming back to the remaining TTP demands, which include the withdrawal of security forces from the tribal areas, halting of military operations there, release of militants from jails, compensation for affected tribesmen and enforcement of Shariah – these could be accepted once the two sides start peace talks, as had been the case in the past. When the military and the militants signed peace deals in South Waziristan (with Commander Baitullah Mehsud) in 2005 and in Malakand Division (with Maulana Sufi Mohammad) in 2008, all these demands were duly accepted by the government.

Though the Pakistani military spokesman has already stated categorically that the army wasn’t undertaking any kind of negotiations with the Taliban, he added in the same breath that any negotiations or reconciliation process would be undertaken by the government and not by the military. Therefore, there are those in the government circles who don’t rule out the possibility of yet another peace deal between the military and the militants in the coming weeks, especially keeping in view the deteriorating ties between Washington and Islamabad.

There are reports that the Pakistani Taliban have actually been asked by Mullah Omar to patch up with the Pakistan Army by striking a peace deal with Pakistan especially at a time when the administration of United States President Barack Obama has already begun the withdrawal of the troops from Afghanistan.

It remains a well-known fact however that the Pakistani Taliban used the previous peace deals with the government to extend their area of influence and strengthen themselves, ultimately forcing the government to go for massive military operations.

The most high-profile peace agreement that gave the militants a chance to gain advantage was signed on February 7, 2005 between the military, led by the Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf, and the militants led by the now slain TTP ameerBaitullah Mehsud. About 1,000 people, including locals and government and military officials, were in attendance. On that occasion, Baitullah said the peace agreement was in the interests of tribal regions as well as the federal government, since hostile forces like India and Russian-backed former Northern Alliance fighters were benefiting from the lack of unity between the government and the tribesmen.

The signing ceremony had ended with the army Corps Commander in Peshawar, Lt Gen Safdar Hussain, declaring Baitullah “a soldier of peace” and the militants raising slogans of “Allah-o-Akbar” (God is great) and “Death to America”. As part of the peace agreement, Baitullah had pledged not to provide any assistance to al-Qaeda and Taliban militants and not to launch attacks against Pakistani security forces. The deal gave Baitullah a free hand to recruit and motivate more youngsters, the strength of his private army in South Waziristan went up from around 1,000 to about 20,000 within weeks, enabling him to virtually establish an independent zone in South Waziristan region.

Within a year of the peace agreement, Baitullah’s private army gunned down over 120 pro-government tribal leaders of his area on charges of spying for the American and Pakistani agencies. But his biggest success came on 30 August, 2007 when his private army captured 200 army soldiers in South Waziristan.

Demanding the withdrawal of the security forces and the release of his comrades in exchange for freeing the soldiers, Baitullah had threatened to put the arrested soldiers on trial for launching a military operation in his area in violation of the February peace accord. “Just as the government side has put my people on trial and sentenced them to imprisoment, I will put the Pakistani army soldiers on trial. I have my own courts which will try the soldiers for violating the peace pact,” Baitullah Mehsud was quoted as saying on September 5.

In the next three days, three abducted soldiers were beheaded, leading Musharraf to order the release of 25 hardcore Taliban militants who were already being tried on terrorism charges. The remaining khaki hostages were released in the first week of November 2007. The 25 released Baitullah associates were trained suicide bombers and one was even under indictment at an anti-terrorist court for participating in a suicide bombing.

As the refusal of the military to release Baitullah’s five remaining aides prompted a series of suicide attacks against the Pakistani security forces, the military decided to hit back in South Waziristan by launching a massive operation.

However, the Pakistani military leadership had to proceed against Baitullah following the US State Department’s March 2009 decision to declare him a most wanted fugitive and announce head money for him. This prompted the TTP ameer to threaten that his militants would soon attack the Americans in their own country to teach them a lesson by targeting the White House.

Thereafter, battle lines were clearly drawn between the military and the militants. A marked man by both the American and the Pakistan security forces, his mountainous demesne in South Waziristan was targeted by Pakistani fighter planes and the US drones. In the wee hours of August 5, 2009, the ruthless, unforgiving and vindictive Baitullah Mehsud, a friend-turned-foe of the Pakistani military establishment, was finally killed along with his wife and bodyguards in an American drone strike in the Zangarha area of South Waziristan.

The second such peace deal was signed on April 20, 2008 between the military led by General Kiani and the militants led by Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the ameer of banned Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM). This led to his release from jail after six years of imprisonment.

The government maintained at that time that the peace deal was meant to restore normalcy to the Swat valley – a picturesque region in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) – now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – that had been taken over by the TNSM, being backed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The deal struck by the Awami National Party (ANP) – the only secular party of the NWFP running the government of the troubled province, brought Sufi back to help broker a deal between the government and the TNSM militants led by Maulana Fazlullah, who is the son-in-law of Sufi Mohammad.

Under the six-point agreement, the TNSM founder had renounced the use of force to achieve its goal of enforcement of Islamic laws in Swat and other parts of the Malakand region. He pledged to respect the institutions of the state, accept the government’s right to establish its writ and to keep a distance from the elements involved in suicide attacks on security forces in the Swat valley and elsewhere. In return, the provincial government withdrew all the pending cases against Sufi, commuted his remaining prison term of four years and set him free unconditionally on April 20, 2008.

Signed at the Chief Minister’s House, the six-point agreement stated:

Peaceful struggle for enforcement of Shariat-e-Mohammadi is the right of every Muslim and the TNSM renews the pledge to carry out that struggle; the TNSM renews the pledge to respect the state institutions so that the writ of the government is established and peace restored in NWFP; the TNSM has no links with those elements involved in attacking the armed forces and the police because soldiers, policemen and other government officials are our brothers and attacks on them are un-Islamic; the TNSM declares that motivation and mutual consultation are the means for enforcement of Shariah; all segments of society should extend cooperation to the government to restore peace and establishing the government writ so that people lead a peaceful life; and the TNSM will fully cooperate with the NWFP government, state institutions as well as local administration for restoration of a lasting peace and security of life and property of the people.

Speaking at a news conference soon after his release, Sufi Mohammad said: “We want peace and complete writ of the government. Those people who are bent upon lawlessness will be invited to restore peace through peaceful means, but if they do not refrain from militancy the government will have the right to take action against them. The government has taken the right decision and it will help in restoration of durable peace in the region.”

However, the critics of the deal maintained that it has legitimized the politics of a banned militant group. They argued that by providing amnesty to Sufi Mohammad and his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, many other militant groups were likely to use terror to blackmail the state into submission elsewhere also.

Almost a week after his release, Sufi disowned his son-in-law, saying that he would not talk to Maulana Fazlullah for showing disobedience to him. Sufi’s move forced the NWFP government to pursue Maulana Fazlullah independently, and eventually strike yet another peace deal (in Swat) with him almost a month later on May 21, 2008. But that and the ensuing ceasefire between the military and the militants were finalized only after Sufi had agreed to be a guarantor on behalf of the Fazlullah-led militants. As per the deal, the government had agreed to allow the implementation of Shariah in Malakand once violence had been stopped there.

Though it was not yet announced, a general amnesty for the militants was to cover Fazlullah and his top lieutenants. The government also gave in to the TNSM demand to give back the control of Maulana Fazlullah’s headquarter besides allowing him to resume operations of his FM radio station.

The signing of the peace deal was severely criticized by liberal and progressive circles which had simply rejected clause No 2 of the peace agreement – that Islamic law be enforced in Swat and the rest of Malakand region by amending the two similar ordinances promulgated in 1994 and 1997.

The country’s liberal circles had maintained that the enforcement of Shariah would place Swat outside the pale of Pakistani state law besides establishing a parallel judicial system. They also doubted Sufi’s new role as a peace-broker and that too on behalf of his son-in-law, mainly in view of their long history of extremism and their strong links with the former Taliban regime of Afghanistan.

These apprehensions came true hardly a month after the deal was signed, as Fazlullah announced on June 18, 2008 in Mingora that he was breaking the pact and setting a one-week deadline for the government to implement the agreement in letter and spirit.

Fazlullah said the government has only released 18 of the 50 Taliban prisoners despite giving a commitment that all of them would be set free. However, the government side was of the view that the prisoners were to be released according to a procedure after reviewing their cases, as had been mentioned in the peace accord. As the five days deadline came to an end, Fazlullah announced he had tasked his commanders to attack top government functionaries in NWFP if the government failed to demonstrate a serious approach toward halting ongoing military operations against his Islamic militia and honoring the peace accord.

In the aftermath of his statement, the peace accord virtually became ineffective, with the TNSM resuming their violent activities in the valley and warning to target the security forces by using its suicide bombers.

Meanwhile, Sufi Mohammad announced on April 10, 2009 that he had decided to pull out of the peace deal, saying the government was not serious about implementing Shariah in the trouble-stricken region.

As skirmishes between the military and the TNSM militants intensified in Swat, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on May 8, 2009 ordered General Kiani to launch a military operation against the militants to flush them out completely from Swat and Malakand areas and restore state control. Sufi Mohammad was eventually arrested on July 28, 2011 – while Maulana Fazlullah made good his escape to Afghanistan.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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