Key Pakistani official says U.S. must end attacks on militants

Amir Haider Hoti, the new chief minister of the North West Fronteir Province of Pakistan.
Amir Haider Hoti, the new chief minister of the North West Fronteir Province of Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The new top official in Pakistan's terrorism-racked northwest frontier has demanded that the United States end missile strikes in the country and called for negotiations with militants — an approach that would dramatically alter the American-inspired war on terror there.

Amir Haider Hoti, who took the oath of office Tuesday as chief minister of the North West Frontier Province, said in an interview with McClatchy that military action should now be used only as a "last resort."

"To some extent, the interests of Pakistan have been sacrificed to the war on terror. We've suffered a lot," Hoti said. The United States "should let us handle it, let Pakistan handle it."

Hoti's demands, if he carries them out, could severely undercut U.S. strategy in Pakistan. President Bush has relied on an alliance with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to attack Islamic militants in the tribal areas.

But Musharraf's party was drubbed in Pakistan's February parliamentary elections, and there are growing concerns in Washington that the country's newly elected leaders will reverse the military-dominated strategy, which has caused an angry public backlash in Pakistan.

Under Pakistan's federal system, the nation is divided into four provinces, each with its own parliament and government.

The region now headed by the 37-year-old Hoti runs along the Afghan border and, in recent weeks, has seen a sharp escalation in U.S. missile attacks from Afghanistan on suspected Islamic militants. Hoti insisted that this tactic must end.

"We will be making a request to the U.S. government, that please stop this thing because it is only adding to the problem," Hoti said. "There is a general hatred in (the province) against certain policies, especially against these strikes. We will consider it as an open violation, interfering in internal affairs."

Hoti's comments seem to fly in the face of Washington's assessment of the threat. On Sunday, CIA Director Michael Hayden warned of a "clear and present danger" to the West from militants in Pakistan's border area with Afghanistan. He said the area had become a "safe haven" for terrorists.

Hayden, speaking in a U.S. television interview, described the last peace deal struck by Pakistan's government with militants in 2006 as "absolutely disastrous." He charged that the agreement allowed the warriors to regroup and attack NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Hoti said his government would use the traditional forum for negotiations — called the jirga — among the Pushtun people of the northwest province to talk to the extremists. His approach has been echoed by Pakistan's central government, which formally has jurisdiction over the Federally Administered Tribal Area, the sliver of land sandwiched between the province and Afghanistan.

The war on terror "wasn't handled properly," Hoti said. "They used force as a first option, never went in for a proper dialogue. They made a lot of errors. Force should be used as a last resort.

"Pushtuns, we have our traditions. We have our own history and dialogue. Through jirga we have been able to sort out our own problems."

The Afghan Taliban, al Qaida and the Pakistani version of the Taliban that they have spawned use the tribal area as a base.

Washington believes that Osama bin Laden is most likely hiding in the hilly terrain of the tribal region. The Pakistani militants are led by warlord Baitullah Mehsud, who runs an umbrella group called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and is accused of masterminding the campaign of suicide bomb attacks that have torn through Pakistan over the last six months.

Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, in his first major speech on Saturday, said that the federal government is "ready to talk to all those people who give up arms."

The Pakistani Taliban have already responded.

At a gathering of 5,000 heavily armed tribesmen on Sunday, leaders said that they were willing to make peace with the Pakistani authorities, but only if the country "severs ties with the U.S." They also wanted the enforcement of Sharia, Islamic law.

They also said that the "jihad against America would continue in Afghanistan." On Sunday, they blew up another girls' school in the area.

Hoti said that his administration wouldn't immediately talk to Mehsud, but "naturally we have to negotiate with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, all the way up because they are the concerned party."

Hoti didn't require any precondition of renouncing violence but said that his dialogue would be limited to Pakistani, not foreign fighters.

"The mandate we got, people voted for a change. What they want from us is peace, peace and stability in this region," Hoti said of the February elections. "Pushtuns are peace-loving people. We've always wanted peace. Who would want a suicide jacket for his child?"

(Shah is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington.)