The United States number one ally in the War on Terror appears ready to negotiate with the terrorists in Pakistan and clear the way for what will almost certainly be an entirely different relationship between the government and the Taliban-AQ forces in the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
This should be an interesting test of President Bush’s “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” foreign policy:
Speaking in separate interviews, the leaders of Pakistanâ€™s new government coalition â€” Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N â€” tried to strike a more independent stance from Washington and repackage the conflict in a more palatable way for Pakistanis.
They said they were determined to set a different course from that of President Musharraf, who has received generous military financial help of more than $10 billion from Washington for his support.
â€œWe are dealing with our own people,â€ said Mr. Sharif, who was twice prime minister in the 1990s. â€œWe will deal with them very sensibly. And when you have a problem in your own family, you donâ€™t kill your own family. You sit and talk. After all, Britain also got the solution of the problem of Ireland. So whatâ€™s the harm in conducting negotiations?â€
Mr. Zardari said: â€œObviously what they have been doing for the last eight years has not been working. Even a fool knows that.â€
The war against the insurgents has to be redefined, he said, as â€œPakistanâ€™s warâ€ for a public that has come to resent the conflict as being pushed on the country as part of an American agenda. It should be dealt with by talks and the use of a beefed-up police force rather than the army, he said.
Like Musharraf before them, the new Pakistani government is coming to the realization that surrendering to the Taliban and AQ is a lot easier and more popular than fighting them. By allowing the tribes backing the Taliban virtual autonomy in the border areas with Afghanistan, they will stop the suicide bombings that have been plauging major cities like Peshwar for the last few months. This will be especially interesting considering that the individual responsible for most of those bombings has been fingered by the US and Scotland Yard investigators as behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhuttto:
Neither Mr. Zardari nor Mr. Sharif was specific about whom among the militant groups in Pakistanâ€™s tribal areas they favored talking to. Nor was it clear what kind of formula or quid pro quo the two political leaders had in mind for the talks.
Mr. Sharif, whose Islamic religious background is conservative, refused to say whether he would negotiate with Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader whom the government blames for many if not most of the recent suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan.
American and Pakistani terrorism experts have said they believe that Mr. Mehsud was behind the assassination of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in December, and that he works in tandem with Al Qaeda. â€œNobody gave me any presentation on this subject,â€ Mr. Sharif said.
Asked whom the negotiations would be held with, Mr. Sharif replied: â€œWith all the concerned elements. I donâ€™t think guns and bullets have so far produced any positive results.â€
If the negotiations hold true to form, there will be several fig leaf agreements that will forbid the Taliban from using the tribal areas as a base to launch attacks against Afghanistan as well as strictures against foreign fighters operating in the area.
Perhaps this time, the terrorists will throw in a bridge in Brooklyn and see if the government will buy it.
Such agreements will almost certainly buy some time for the Pakistani government – just as they did for Musharraf – as the political leaders will seek to curry favor with the anti-American population by ostensibly distancing themselves from Washington.
Meanwhile, it may doom Afghanistan. The United States has been begging NATO to commit more combat troops to Afghanistan to help the beleaguered Canadians in Kandahar province who are facing the brunt of Taliban incursions. That will change if agreements in the NWFP with Taliban backed tribes are negotiated. If Pakistan were to withdraw troops from the border area and replace them with the ill trained Frontier Militia, the Taliban will have little trouble opening another front in Afghanistan farther north:
For instance, one element of the stepped-up American aid effort is a $400 million plan to train the Frontier Corps, an underfinanced paramilitary force that is used to patrol the border with Afghanistan.
Mr. Sharif said he had heard about the plan, expected to begin in October, but had no details.
Mr. Zardari favored employing such a force over relying on the army, which he said was the â€œwrong instrumentâ€ to use against the militants. â€œWe need to use the police force,â€ he said. â€œThey had few guns, made in 1952. You have to upgrade them. You have got to give them modern technology, and they will stand better than anybody else.â€
Mr. Sharif, who is regarded as a nationalist â€” he gave the go-ahead for the explosion of Pakistanâ€™s nuclear bomb in 1998 â€” said he was not in favor of foreign aid. â€œI think frankly we should rely less on aid,â€ he said. â€œIt makes us, you see, lazy. We should generate our own resources.â€
The US saw the paramilitaries the same way they viewed the Sunni Awakening in Iraq; as a way for the young men of the tribes who are currently being hired to fight by the Taliban to be employed instead in defense of the Pakistani government. That may still be an option for the government but I would place little faith in their desire or ability to interdict the Taliban’s infiltration into Afghanistan.
There will be many defenders of Pakistan’s new policy here in the United States. After all, talking with the enemy is always preferable to shooting at him, right? And the negotiations may very well accomplish what the government seeks to achieve – a respite from the bombings and less opposition to the government in the tribal areas.
To try and see this as anything less than a total, unmitigated disaster for the United States is to practice self delusion. This too, will probably sit well with those in the US who see any setback for the Bush Administration in a positive light.
But the agreements signed by President Musharraf in the Waziristans in the last 3 years have proven to be little more than green lights for the Taliban to send as many fighters across the border into Afghanistan as they believe necessary to carry out operations against NATO forces. And the strictures against al-Qaeda foreign fighters leaving Pakistan were honored in the breach.
The immediate problem will be Afghanistan. But in the long term, any agreement signed by the government will only strengthen the extremists and bring them closer to Osama Bin Laden’s goal of taking over the Pakistani government – a government that possesses the ultimate weapon against cartoons that insult Islam and those who publish them.