Pakistan Asserts It Is Near a Deal With Militants


Richard Moore

April 25, 2008

Pakistan Asserts It Is Near a Deal With Militants


PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The Pakistani government is close to an agreement to end hostilities with the most militant tribes in its turbulent border area, whose main leader is accused of orchestrating most of the suicide bombings of recent months and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

A 15-point draft of the accord, which was shown to The New York Times, called for an end to militant activity and an exchange of prisoners in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from part of the tribal region of South Waziristan.

Even as the accord, a far-reaching draft that essentially forbids the tribes from engaging in nearly all illegal actions, was being negotiated by the government through tribal elders, the militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, ordered his fighters to cease their activities in the tribal regions as well as the adjoining North-West Frontier Province, warning of strict punishment of any violators.

American and Afghan officials were immediately skeptical of a deal with Mr. Mehsud, one of Pakistan’s most hard-line militants. They have blamed past accords for allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup, fortify their ties and use Pakistan as a base to plot attacks here and abroad. Previously, members of Pakistan’s new coalition government had said they considered Mr. Mehsud irretrievably hostile.

“We have seen the agreements they have made before, and they do not work,” said one American official, referring to an agreement in North Waziristan in September 2006, which was blamed for strengthening the militants and a surge in cross-border attacks against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

In Washington, the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, was also wary. “We are concerned about it,” she said, referring to the possibility of an accord, “and what we encourage them to do is to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there.”

The approach to Mr. Mehsud followed pledges by the new government to make a break with the policies President Pervez Musharraf has embraced in recent years, to pursue dialogue with the militants and to restore calm to Pakistan, which has been jolted by suicide attacks. Diplomats and Afghan officials suggested that the government was trying to show good will, while playing for time to bring stability.

Though Mr. Musharraf, too, negotiated with the militants, he used the military in the tribal areas in a way that many Pakistanis criticized as heavy-handed, losing hundreds of Pakistani troops in the fighting. The military operations and his alliance with the United States in fighting terrorism have grown deeply unpopular.

The United States has consistently discouraged negotiations with militants — what Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte described as “irreconcilable elements” during a visit to Pakistan in March. “I don’t see how you can talk with those kinds of people,” he said.

Mr. Mehsud, perhaps Pakistan’s most notorious militant, leads an umbrella group of the militants in the border areas, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan. Pakistan’s previous government and American officials have said a communications intercept linked him to Ms. Bhutto’s assassination, and a Pakistani court has charged Mr. Mehsud in absentia with planning it.

Ms. Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and other members of her party have cast doubt on the previous government’s version of events, however.

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the party, called the cease-fire announcement by Mr. Mehsud a “welcome development,” but said the negotiations were continuing. “No deal has been finalized,” he said by telephone. Regarding Mr. Mehsud’s alleged involvement in Ms. Bhutto’s assassination, he said the “Pakistan Peoples Party had not named Baitullah Mehsud” as being responsible for her attack.

Even so, Mr. Mehsud claims to have scores of suicide bombers at his disposal, and he is blamed for many if not most of the suicide attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last two years. Diplomats and Afghan officials said they believed that the new government recognized that he was a long-term danger, even though it may be seeking a short-term reprieve from his attacks through the negotiations.

Previously, leaders of the Awami National Party, which leads the government in North-West Frontier Province and is part of the national coalition, have said they do not think Mr. Mehsud will enter into serious negotiations.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher said the United States viewed the negotiations as a tactic, acknowledging that it had been tried before by Mr. Musharraf. The concern was follow-through and enforcement, he said. “The outcome is what matters,” he said. “There has to be less violent activity. There has to be an end to the Al Qaeda elements who are very dangerous, who are up there plotting and planning.”

The draft agreement, which was approved by senior political leaders in Islamabad, has the backing of the military establishment, officials here said.

They said the go-ahead for the talks was given at an April 15 meeting in Islamabad of top leaders of the new coalition government, which includes Ms. Bhutto’s party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, now run by Mr. Zardari.

The Awami National Party chief, Asfandyar Wali Khan, briefed his own coalition partners and obtained their consent, too, the officials said.

One official said that during an earlier briefing, on April 2, the chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, told Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and the heads of the coalition parties that the military would take its cue from the political leadership on internal security, including peace talks with militants.

Members of the government could not be reached for comment. Zahid Khan, a government official from the Awami National Party in Peshawar, confirmed that negotiations were going on with the Mehsud tribe, not with Mr. Mehsud directly, but said that the central government was in charge of dealing with the tribal areas.

According to the draft document, the deal would be signed between the political administrator of South Waziristan and the tribal elders of the Mehsud tribes there.

It would require the Mehsud tribes to cease attacks and stop kidnapping military and government officials, to open all roads and to allow freedom of movement to the Frontier Corps, the local security force. They would also promise not to carry out terrorist acts in Pakistan, including the tribal regions, and not to assist others in attacks, or allow their territory to be used for antistate activity.

The draft requires the Mehsuds to respect state authority and resolve any problems through the local political administration, which would respect local customs and cooperate with tribal elders. It also requires the Mehsuds to assist the government in development plans for the region.

It also requires the Mehsud tribes to expel all foreign militants from their territory and deny them shelter in the future. The document says that the expulsion of foreign militants would begin within one month of the signing of the agreement, but a month’s extension could be granted for good reason.

There is no mention of ending cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.

In return, both sides would exchange prisoners and the government would withdraw regular army troops from Mehsud territory in a gradual, phased manner, the document says. The draft also states that the agreement should not be scrapped because of any external or internal pressure, a reference presumably to American or other pressure.

One official expressed caution over the document and said the agreement was still not complete. “It involves tough bargaining,” the official said. “By no means is it simple and easy.”

Even as negotiations continued, Mr. Mehsud had fliers distributed in South Waziristan and adjoining districts ordering his fighters to cease activities and warning of public punishment for violators, his spokesman said.

Maulavi Omar, the spokesman, said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location that the military had already begun pulling out of the Mehsud part of South Waziristan as a result of the ongoing talks.

A military spokesman denied it, however. “Not yet,” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. “So far we have not received any orders from the government in this regard.”

Maulavi Omar claimed that the Tehrik-i-Taliban held more than 100 military, paramilitary and government officials hostage and said they would be released after the agreement was signed through a grand tribal jirga, or gathering.

He said talks were also under way to restore peace both in North-West Frontier Province, where the government signed a separate accord with militant leaders from Malakand, an area north of Peshawar that includes the tourist valley of Swat. Heavy fighting has taken place there over the last six months.

A grand tribal jirga would be held to approve the agreement, which would be binding on all sides, Maulavi Omar said. “There will be full compliance from our side,” he said, adding that he was more optimistic than ever for peace.

Ismail Khan reported from Peshawar, and Carlotta Gall from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company