The February provincial and federal elections have done little to change Pakistan’s policy of dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold in the tribal agencies and the Northwest Frontier Province. The newly appointed central and provincial governments have signaled that negotiating with the Taliban is the solution to the problem.
“We’re ready to talk to all those who give up arms and adopt the path of peace,” Yousuf Raza Gilani, the newly appointed Prime Minister of Pakistan who represents the Pakistan People’s Party, said after taking office. Gilani indicated he would negotiate with the Taliban and plans on focusing his efforts on infrastructure, humanitarian aid, and legal reforms to defeat terrorism.
Ameer Haider Khan Hoti, the newly elected Chief Minister of the Northwest Frontier Province, was clear that negotiation is his administration’s primary weapon in the fight against the Taliban. Hoti’s Awami National Party won an outright majority in the provincial elections in February. The ANP is a secular Pashtun party that is opposed to military action against the Taliban and promotes nonviolent solutions.
“We’ll make every effort to restore peace in the province,” Hoti said. “We’ll form traditional jirgas for peace,” he said, referring to the peace committees that have failed to halt the Taliban’s rise in the province. “We want peace. We want education. We don’t want suicide jackets and guns.”
Hoti’s provincial ministers have supported this view. The minister of information for the Northwest Frontier Province suggested negotiating with none other than Baitullah Mehsud, the mastermind behind numerous suicide attacks throughout Pakistan and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who was slated to become the next prime minister. “If Islamabad can hold talks with Indian Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh, why cannot peace talks be held with Baitullah Mehsud and other Taliban commanders,” said education minister Sardar Babak. Babak also said order would be restored in the province through dialogue.
The Taliban has welcomed the government’s overtures for peace. The recently established Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan praised the government’s decisions during a public rally in Bajaur agency. Wanted Taliban leaders Faqir Muhammad, Sher Bahadar, Muhammad Ismail, and spokesman Maulvi Omar were in attendance and spoke at the rally.
The Taliban demanded the Pakistani government end its cooperation with the US as a condition for negotiations. “Whenever Pakistan will work for American interests as its ally, we will oppose it,” Faqir said as the crowd chanted “death to America.” The Taliban also said it would continue to strike in Afghanistan and demanded sharia law be implemented in the Northwest Frontier Province.
The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan was founded in mid-December 2007 to provide a unified political and military command. Baitullah Mehsud is the leader and Faqir Mohammed serves as the group’s second in command.
Applying peace in Swat
Multimedia presentation of the senior Taliban commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Click to view.
The government of the Northwest Frontier Province is not interested in just negotiating, it is ending military operations to dislodge the Taliban. After nearly six months of operations to dislodge the Taliban from the settled district of Swat, the government indicated it would pull the Pakistani Army out of the area. The president of the Awami National Party said the Army would be withdrawn and the government would end “violence in the name of war and terror.” The government formed a peace jirga and begun establishing links with the Taliban in the region.
Soon after the announcement, the Taliban openly marched in the town of Matta while the Pakistani security forces stood by. More than 40 Taliban fighters, led by two of Mullah Fazlullah’s lieutenants, marched unopposed near a military checkpoint in the town. “Neither the security personnel at the check post, nor the area police officials posed any resistance to the show of strength,” the Daily Times reported. “Army officials in Swat said that they were awaiting directives from the provincial government before taking action.”
The Taliban have restored the madrassa that served has Fazlullah’s headquarters, while Sirajuddin, Fazlullah’s spokesman, said he “hoped that Fazlullah would also return and restart his’mission,'” according to the Daily Times.
Fazlullah is the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the jailed leader of the outlawed Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – the Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Sharia Law). The TNSM, known as the “Pakistani Taliban,” provided ideological inspiration for the Afghan Taliban. The TNSM sent over 10,000 fighters into Afghanistan to fight US forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001.
Fazlullah has successfully organized anti-polio and anti-girls’ schools campaigns throughout the region. The Swat region has long been a haven and training ground for the Pakistani Taliban. Taliban fighters from Waziristan were sheltered by the TNSM last year before the Pakistani military launched an operation to drive the Taliban form the district.
Negotiations in Malakand
The government is also negotiating with the Taliban in the Malakand Division, an administrative region consisting of the districts of Swat, Lower Dir, Upper Dir, Buner, and Chitral. Members of the TNSM have met with the police chief of the division to negotiate the dropping of criminal charges against their members. “Officials would review the cases against TNSM members and leaders,” the Daily Times reported.
Negotiating with the Taliban: a revived, failed strategy
The Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party are beginning their administrations with negotiations with the Taliban despite these parties being in the crosshairs of the Taliban. The Taliban assassinated Bhutto, the presumptive prime minister, during an election rally in Karachi at the end of December 2007. The assassination and a failed attack in October claimed hundreds of party members killed and hundreds more wounded.
The Taliban also targeted the Awami National Party in the weeks prior to the election in February. Scores of party members were killed and nearly 200 wounded when suicide bombers struck at party offices.
The old Pakistani government attempted to placate the Taliban with negotiations in 2006, 2007, and early 2008, but these attempts failed to quell the violence. Peace agreements were signed with the Taliban in South and North Waziristan in 2006 and in Bajaur, Mohmand, and Swat in 2007. The former interior minister ordered negotiations in early February. Yet the Taliban expanded its control throughout the tribal agencies and the settled districts in the Northwest Frontier Province. The Taliban openly took control of Swat and neighboring Shangla in October 2007, prompting the Pakistani military to intervene.
The Taliban are consolidating their command and control capabilities and are preparing to disrupt NATO supply lines into Afghanistan. An estimated 70 to 80 percent of NATO supplies move through the Khyber Pass in the Khyber tribal agency.
Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied terror groups maintained 29 training camps in North and South Waziristan alone as of the summer of 2007. The numbers are not available for the other tribal agencies and the Northwest Frontier Province.
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