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Relighting the peace pipe

Kanishk Tharoor
4 April 2008

In addressing the ongoing low-level insurgency in Pakistan's rugged northwest, local responses wrestle with global consequences. President Pervez Musharraf was on the sharp end of heavy criticism when his government reached an agreement with militants and tribals in the region in the so-called "Waziristan Accords" of September 2006. In exchange for promising not to harbour al-Qaida and other terrorist suspects, the Pashtun tribesmen, who inhabit both sides of the porous border with Afghanistan, would be left largely to their own devices. Governments and analysts around the world balked: how could Pakistan evacuate a region known to be a safe haven for terrorists and the possible hide-out for Osama bin Laden?

Kanishk Tharoor is associate editor of openDemocracy. As power shifts in Islamabad in 2008 to the newly-elected ruling coalition under Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, Pakistan is likely to go down a similar route. Musharraf's laissez-faire policy in the northwest was abandoned last year after the bitter and bloody siege of the Lal Masjid, a radical mosque in Islamabad. The subsequent military interventions in the northwest of the country cost Pakistan dearly in treasure and manpower, and further fuelled militancy and bloodshed in the region.

Islamabad's aggressive policy played into the hands of the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP). In the last elections in 2002, Islamist political parties dominated in regional elections in the northwest, with the ANP largely invisible in regional politics. February's elections saw a complete reversal. In the run-up to the polls, ANP candidates and supporters were targeted by militants. The party stood at once against Islamist militancy and the blunt militarism of Musharraf. Voters in the northwest latched onto the ANP as an alternative path, sweeping them to victory in the regional elections and into a strong position in the national assembly (ANP is a member of the newly-elected ruling coalition).

Now the ANP have entered into negotiations with Islamist militants in the northwest, including elements of the "Pakistani Taliban", the Tahrik Taliban Pakistan, echoing the earlier policy of talking to, not bashing militants in the border regions. Chances of success are higher with this initiative, as it is a very much a local undertaking grounded in common Pashtun concerns. Coupled with measures like the Afghan-Pakistan Peace Jirga, the diplomatic route could restore a degree of brokered calm to the restive northwest.

At the same time, policymakers in Washington fret about the stumbling progress of the "war on terrorism" in Pakistan's northwest. Last weekend, CIA director Michael Hayden suggested that US military force may be required in snuffing out Islamist militant threats in the region, including key al-Qaida training camps and leaders. His remarks provoked outrage in Pakistan, with the local assembly of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) officially condemning Hayden's statement and insisting that Washington respect Pakistan's territorial integrity. American forces in Afghanistan already routinely bomb villages on the Pakistani side of the border. US leaders, including presidential candidate Barack Obama, have suggested sending American troops into Pakistan.

While 44% of Pakistanis support their own troops intervening in the rugged tribal areas, 80% of Pakistanis are opposed to American or other foreign troops entering the region. Beyond popular unrest, serious US intervention could have dire consequences for stability in Pakistan. Although only some of Pakistan's army and its notorious ISI intelligence agency actively support Islamists, whole scare desertions may occur should US soldiers enter into the country and a proxy war breaking out in the northwest (as Anatol Lieven told a toD seminar on Pakistan).

Pakistan's leaders don't want the "war on terrorism" to convert their country into a "killing field", emphasising conciliatory approaches and development in calming the restive northwest. It remains to be seen how Washington will adapt its rough-and-tumble aspirations in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the cooler mood on the ground.

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