Pakistan military started talks with Islamists

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's newly elected government is clashing with the country's powerful military over peace deals that the military has secretly initiated with Islamic militants allied with al Qaida along the country's border with Afghanistan.

In an interview with McClatchy, former Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency began negotiations with tribes and militants in the tribal areas along the Afghan border during the interregnum between the end of U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf's regime on Nov. 15 and late March, when the new government took over.

“They were started by the agencies and the army in the caretaker period,” said Sherpao, who twice served as chief minister of the North West Frontier Province and who, as interior minister, ran Pakistan's counterterrorism policy in the Musharraf government for more than three years, until last November. “The agreements are either done by the army or the governor. The federal government doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

When news of a new peace initiative emerged last week in South Waziristan, the most volatile part of Pakistan's tribal border region with Afghanistan, many thought it was a product of opposition parties' triumph in the February parliamentary election.

However, according to a senior Pakistani official, the government came to know about the military's initiative only after it took power, and it has since tried to rein in the army’s plan, which would have pulled out Pakistani troops and left local tribes to police the area.

The apparent rift is the first public hint of tension between Pakistan's elected leaders and the military, which ran the country from October 1999 until the elections in February.

"We gave clear instructions (to the army) that there will be no agreements with anyone who does not relinquish their weapons,” said the official, who declined to be identified because he isn't authorized to speak to the press. “The agreements are part of a carrot-and-stick deal. The stick, the army of Pakistan, will not be removed.”

This week, Baitullah Mehsud, the Waziristan warlord who leads Pakistan’s version of the Taliban, broke off the talks when negotiators told him that the army wouldn't be retreating.

The government doesn't "want to get into a situation where it is more appeasement than an agreement,” said Khalid Aziz, a former top bureaucrat in North West Frontier Province and a member of a task force that's developing a counterterrorism economic strategy for the provincial government. “Let’s stop playing games; we have played these too often. If we have to talk, let’s talk something which is concrete and is not an embarrassment.”

Publicly, the army has said only that it's briefed the incoming political leaders on their options. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army spokesman, maintained the official line this week. “The government is negotiating. So far we don’t know the outcome,” he said.

In fact, the main negotiators are all Musharraf appointees. In November 2007, Musharraf appointed Inter-Services Intelligence head Gen. Ashfaq Kayani as army chief after Musharraf was forced to vacate the top military job. Then, in January, Musharraf appointed an ally, Owais Ahmad Ghani, as governor of the Frontier Province.

Under Pakistan’s constitution, the tribal belt or Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) comes under the authority of the governor and the president, not the provincial government or federal ministers.

Zahid Khan, a senior member of the Awami National Party, a nationalist party that won the elections in the North West Frontier Province and leads the provincial government, said his administration isn't involved in the negotiations with militants in FATA.

“We are talking to those (extremists) in the settled areas. The tribal areas come under the governor and central government. We don’t know anything about those,” Khan said.

According to a report this week in The News, a Pakistani newspaper, the state’s negotiating team in South Waziristan is made up of a senior army officer, an intelligence officer and a representative of Waziristan's governor. They are talking to tribal elders, clerics and two nominees of the militants.

The South Waziristan deal would be one of a patchwork of similar agreements hammered out with tribal chiefs in the FATA agencies. The secret negotiations could help to explain a mysterious cease-fire that the Pakistani army has observed since early February in Waziristan.

Also in February, while national and international interest was focused on Pakistan’s election, a peace agreement was quietly reached between the authorities and tribes in the less volatile North Waziristan, following a visit to the area by Kayani, according to local press reports.

Western and Afghan officials, together with some senior members of Pakistan’s new government, have expressed fears of a repeat of two previous peace deals, in 2005 in South Waziristan and in 2006 in North Waziristan. Washington and Kabul say the withdrawal of the Pakistan army after those accords allowed Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to use Waziristan to launch attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan and gave al Qaida a sanctuary in which to regroup. The latest agreement appears to put no obligation on the tribes to prevent their area from being used to attack Afghanistan.

“To make peace with one part (of the Taliban) and not the other part is a worry for the entire world,” said Mohammad Anwar Anwarzai, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan. “It is giving them (Pakistani militants) carte blanche to do whatever you want, but not here" in Pakistan.

Those previous accords in Waziristan were undermined by U.S. missile strikes in FATA, especially the bombing of Damadola village, in Bajaur agency, in January 2006, and a strike on Oct. 30, 2006, at a seminary in Bajaur in which about 80 people died, according to a leading analyst. The North Waziristan agreement was signed just a month earlier, and a similar deal was due to be signed on that very day in Bajaur. Many believe that there was a pattern of U.S. attacks designed to negate the peace deals.

“This is going to put us right back where we were in January (2006), when the U.S. bombed Bajaur, to pre-empt the Bajaur agreement,” said Christine Fair, an analyst at Rand Corp., a private U.S. research institute. “The Americans bombed the agreement.”

(Shah, a special correspondent, reported from Islamabad and Landay from Washington.)