Pakistan military endorses another Taliban truce — with a difference

The Christian Science MonitorMarch 8, 2009 

New Delhi and Peshawar, Pakistan — A pair of recent cease-fires in Pakistan has drawn many of the same critiques as past deals: They give militants legitimacy as well as an opportunity to regroup or relocate. But this time may be different. In the tribal agency of Bajaur, the military for the first time made significant headway before observing a truce.

To build on these gains, counterterrorism analysts say Pakistan must use the lull in fighting to bring in as much security and development as possible to Bajaur and to Swat, where a separate cease-fire deal was made.

A test of progress will be if refugees in camps in Peshawar begin to head home. Despite the military's declaration of victory against the Taliban in Bajaur late last month, many say it's still too unsafe to return. Travelers and residents say the Taliban haven't been flushed from two of nine districts there.

"In Charmang, the military cannot even patrol," says Wahab Khan, a local trader who traveled there last week, after the military accepted a Taliban-initiated cease-fire. "People are still afraid and know if they speak out against the Taliban, they can be hung."

Yet in Bajaur, for the first time, Pakistani forces made significant military headway before observing a truce. And they did so only after the Taliban declared a unilateral cease-fire.

This is a break from pacts past, including the one made in Swat late last month. "All of these other deals have been essentially ratifying defeats on the ground," says Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation based in Arlington, Va.

The United States has taken a dim view of Pakistan's propensity to negotiate rather than stick with a fight. It does not fit the American military's counterinsurgency mantra of "clear, hold, build," meaning: clear an area of the enemy, then hold it with security forces and truces to allow for reconstruction work.

Pakistan's military theory, called the "three Ds," reverses the order: dialogue, development, and deterrence.

"Instead of clearing the areas," the idea is to try for a negotiated settlement as "a very good starting point to then bring the militancy under control," says Rifaat Hussain, chairman of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

So far so good in Bajaur, he suggests, so long as there's now a way to keep the Taliban out and bring development in.

Can tribes keep security gains?

The military plan for holding the gains is through a tribal security structure that has been used since British times. Under the system, bargains are struck with tribes to keep the military and police out of the territory in exchange for self-policing that relies on tribe-based posses called lashkars.

In recent years, the Taliban had disrupted this age-old security arrangement by targeting tribal elders who control these groups.. Now, the military hopes to revive it, accepting a pledge last month from tribal elders in Bajaur to keep the region clear and allow the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force, to backstop the effort.

"Some sort of negotiations [are needed] because you cannot overrun and bulldoze everything there," says military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. "It has to be a political agreement with the tribes. Peace in this area means that the tribal council has given a guarantee that they are responsible for any violation."

However, Professor Hussain questions whether tribal forces, or even the Frontier Corps, have the training and equipment to resist the Taliban.

Lashkars have been outgunned before, so much so that the government has grown "very wary" of trumpeting them, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, editor of the News in Peshawar. A suicide attack on local tribal elders in Swat dealt a serious blow to the lashkar idea there.

The Bajaur refugees disparage the lashkars, too. "Those who joined the lashkars added to the problem. It brought more retaliation," says Mr. Khan, the Bajauri shopkeeper in Peshawar.

What's needed is the introduction of a proper police force into the tribal areas, says Ms. Fair with RAND, adding that neither the lashkars nor the Frontier Corps are up to this task. "It's always police that win insurgencies," she says.

The 19th century arrangement that keeps professional police out of the tribal areas doesn't fit the 21st reality of the region, Fair continues.

Over the decades, the lack of integration with Pakistan stunted development and security, now set back further by the Taliban and the military counterinsurgency.

"Why should we go back? There are curfews. There are no supplies. The bazaars have been destroyed. There is nothing for us there," says Zarshad Khan a young shopkeeper.

Other refugees recall feelings of terror after the Taliban arrived. "They entered our house one day to conduct a search. They threw around the women's clothing," says Pasmara, an elderly woman who came to the camp four months ago.

One man who did stay in Bajaur says there has been "some drop in violence," and military patrols are visible in some areas. But "the Taliban hold Charmang. All schools are closed, all [tribal] police stations are closed," says Akbar Khan, reached by phone.

Those who fled also paid a high price, with the arduous trek through the mountains being too much for many. The very old were left behind. Some estimates of refugees from the Bajaur conflict run as high as in the hundreds of thousands.

More doubt over Swat deal

The exodus made it much easier for the military to make gains against the Taliban in Bajaur as opposed to densely populated Swat, although some 200,000 residents fled from there as well.

In that onetime popular tourist spot, some 3,000 Taliban had held off 12,000 troops for months and controlled 70 percent of the area. In late February, in a deal arranged by hard-line cleric Maulana Sufi Mohammad and the provincial government, the military agreed to stop fighting - as well as to impose Islamic law and release several Taliban prisoners - if militants stopped displaying their weapons in public.

"The military operation was causing a lot of death and destruction" in Swat, says military spokesman Abbas. "It was decided to opt for another option [there]."

The Swat deal represents something "very different from the others in years past," says Hussain. It involves not just the military and the insurgents, but also the provincial ruling party and a local power broker.

Though he remains "deeply skeptical" about the cease-fire's ability to stick, he says "the Swat peace deal will be a litmus test of this framework" of dialogue.

Though Pakistan was criticized for the deal in Swat, dialogue with militants still has currency among regional and American officials. President Obama signaled in an interview with the New York Times Sunday that the US was open to negotiating with the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan.

(Ahmed is a Monitor correspondent)

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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