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Page last updated at 09:53 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 10:53 UK

Will Pakistan's militants lay down arms?

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

A Pakistani militant stand guard in the tribal region of Khyber, near Peshawar
The new government is trying to reach out to the militants

When Pakistan's new Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani made his inaugural address to parliament last month he said his government was "ready to talk to all those people who give up arms and are ready to embrace peace".

Now the country's most feared militant commander, Baitullah Mehsud, has called a truce with the government amid reports of an impending peace deal.

The truce call came shortly after the government released from prison a prominent pro-Taleban cleric who has led insurgencies in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Baitullah Mehsud heads a loose grouping of tribal militants called the Pakistani Taleban Movement.

He had been formally charged by the previous government with the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who was killed in a suicide attack in December.

Sanctuary

Observers feel that these developments signify confidence building measures ahead of a rapprochement between Taleban militants and the new democratic government led by Ms Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party.

In the past, when President Pervez Musharraf was the dominant political force, his governments signed a number of peace agreements with the militants but they only helped them to regroup and to carve out a sanctuary in Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas, along the border with Afghanistan.

Baitullah Mehsud photographed in 2005
Baitullah Mehsud has called for a truce

From here, they have been staging attacks against Western troops inside Afghanistan to the west, and have also extended their activities eastwards into Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The presence of Western troops in Afghanistan, and the image of the Gen Musharraf as a military dictator promoting US interests in the region, served as useful propaganda for the militants.

But President Musharraf is now a civilian and has lost much of his power after the heavy defeat of his allies in the 18 February elections. The new government feels it is time for a change of tactics.

And the Western powers that earlier insisted on a military solution to the problem are now readjusting their priorities to this new political reality.

"It is important to negotiate with the tribes to end violence, to end suicide bombings and to end the plotting and planning that happens (in the tribal areas)," the US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said on Wednesday.

Ambitious targets

Earlier in the week, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Britain supported "reconciliation with those who are willing to reconcile".

However, both emphasised the importance of enforcing what has been agreed upon.

In the previous agreements, the government failed to enforce clauses requiring militants to expel foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda leaders and activists, and stop cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

But the present government has indicated that it not only wants the militants to meet those demands, but also to dismantle the parallel administration they have set up in parts of North and South Waziristan districts.

Members of Pakistan's paramilitary force protest demanding their back wages
Some say development of the border region is essential to lasting peace
Although these are ambitious targets, many Pakistani analysts believe this can be done.

"The militants were able to destabilise parts of Afghanistan because there was anarchy," says former security chief of the Pakistani tribal areas, Brig Mehmood Shah.

"In Pakistan there was no anarchy, but they succeeded because President Musharraf lacked credibility."

Brig Shah believes the new democratic government will be able to shift the pressure of public opinion against militants.

"The people of NWFP have faced the brunt of militants' attacks and they have now elected a government that believes in the separation of religion from politics, an important tribal custom."

Financial costs

Brig Shah says the government also intends to evolve a mechanism to ensure the tribes dismantle training camps in their areas.

Pakistan PM Gillani
Prime Minister Gillani is 'ready to talk' to militants

"This will dampen cross-border raids," he says.

But at what cost?

Financially, this policy will require massive development aid on both sides of the border, and quickly too, says Fazal Rahim Marwat who teaches Pakistan studies at Peshawar University.

"Any solution to the problem of militancy will involve dismantling of the war economy that has sustained warriors on both sides of the border for more than two decades," he says.

In terms of strategic advantage, the cost may be as high or as low as Pakistan's need for a strategic depth in Afghanistan against arch-rival India, says a senior administration official based in NWFP, requesting anonymity.

"Establishing peace in tribal areas will mean an end to our strategic influence in Afghanistan. What is the quid pro quo?" he asks.

When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1988, the Islamic warriors who had fought them moved to the divided state of Kashmir and started a 15-year-long insurgency in the part controlled by India.

After 9/11, as Islamic militants shifted back to the Afghan border, the Pakistani authorities gradually pulled the plug on the Kashmiri militant groups, and bringing government support to their activities to a complete halt in January 2006.

Latest reports of a rapprochement with tribal militants come days after a public gathering of Kashmiri militant organisations in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir - their first in two years.

Many say this could not have happened without a nod from the government.

It could well be a sign that the government is looking for ways to persuade the Kashmir militants to change their ways, while hoping that India will offer concessions in a territorial dispute that has dogged both countries ever since the British left the sub-continent more than 60 years ago.



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