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Page last updated at 15:24 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 16:24 UK

Can Pakistan's new anti-militancy strategy work?

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Karachi

A music shop destroyed by militants in North Waziristan
A music shop destroyed by militants in North Waziristan

The Pakistan government appears to be making new efforts to establish its control in north-western territories bordering Afghanistan.

But there is little sense yet of how far it is prepared to confront the various militant groups who control large amounts of territory there.

After assuming power over two months ago, Pakistan's new democratic government said it would negotiate with the tribes of the north-west to curb cross-border raids into Afghanistan and to end the domestic militancy that caused havoc in Pakistan last year.

On Wednesday, a high-level meeting presided by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani authorised the army to back these talks with a credible threat of force.

The US administration has apparently endorsed this strategy, with Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, terming it "a very important development".

But the coalition forces in Afghanistan are still wary, insisting that dialogue and peace deals in the past have only resulted in militants spending more of their time fighting in Afghanistan.

'Deliberate strike'

The government's new strategy follows two important developments in the border region.

Police in Peshawar have abandoned night patrols in many parts of the city...because of the spreading militant threat

One was a US air strike that killed more than 10 Pakistani soldiers at a border post in the Mohmand tribal region on 11 June.

Most officials and analysts in Pakistan believe it was a deliberate strike to punish Pakistan for not doing enough to prevent militants from crossing into Afghanistan.

The other is the brief kidnapping last week of 16 local Christians by the militants from the heart of Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Between Peshawar and Afghanistan lies the strip of territory officially known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).

But the official title is misleading. This is the area that the British empire never managed to subdue.

In reality, the Pakistan government let the various bellicose tribes of the area govern themselves until President Musharraf was pressured by the US to take action against the militants.

One of the most disturbing developments for the Pakistani government is how in recent months the police in Peshawar have abandoned night patrols in many parts of the city and surrounding areas because of the spreading militant threat.

The militants are becoming increasingly brazen in the city - one of Pakistan's four provincial capitals.

Bases for attack

To get an overall view of the scale of the militant threat in the north-west take a look at the map.

map

The worst areas are the Swat district of NWFP, the adjacent district of Dir, and then, dipping south-westwards in a more or less straight line, the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

The Swat and Dir districts were used as bases by militant groups fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir during the 1990s.

The Fata tribal areas have served as a launching pad for Afghan guerillas ever since the 1980s when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Both the operations, which ran for decades, were planned, controlled and funded by the country's top intelligence service, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

President Musharraf tried to flush the militants out, but failed.

Since then, the militant movement has evolved into a larger entity of loose knit groups.

Sympathise?

Some analysts argue that the militants have flourished because of the mistakes and failures of the army. It is often criticised for sidelining the tribal administrations and conducting indiscriminate operations that killed innocent civilians.

Baitullah Mehsud - 24 May 2008
Militants like Baitullah Mehsud are well armed

Others say that there are still many elements with the military and wider security services and government who still sympathise with, and actively support, the militants.

The government's new strategy unveiled on Wednesday appears to be a reversion to the traditional system inherited from the British colonial rulers.

It involves graduated responses in order of severity to keep the semi-autonomous tribes under control.

There is consultation through the age-old calling of jirgas, or councils of tribal elders.

Then there can be economic blockades of erring tribes.

If that fails, then the government can resort to punitive military strikes.

But can such an approach work?

'Precise targeting'

Hardcore Islamist militants, such as Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan, have shown themselves to be well-armed. They have successfully tapped into widespread anti-American sentiment.

A protest in Peshawar against the US
A protest in Peshawar against the US

In addition, the waning of central government influence has been exacerbated by a growing number of criminal gangs posing as the Taleban.

They are involved in kidnapping for ransom and the smuggling of Afghanistan's opium abroad. Many are unemployed youth with nothing better to do.

Brigadier (Rtd) Mehmood Shah, a former security chief of the tribal areas, says the military need to be selective.

"There are very few people that need to be dealt with... military action must precisely target only the hardcore militants."

Alternatives, he warns, may only alienate further local people who have grown tired of the violence.

"A no-hold-barred operation, like the one that Americans want, will be counter-productive."

So will we see firm talks with militants backed by targeted action in the coming weeks and months?

"The federal government has discussed some related issues with us, but we think it is not enough," says Afrasiab Khatak, who heads the Awami National Party in the NWFP which swept to power there in February's elections.

"It is still not clear if our security establishment has really decided to dump the Taleban."

If Mr Khatak's doubts are well-founded, then many fear we are in for a period of "cosmetic" military actions aimed at containing the militants, rather than eliminating the militant threat altogether.





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