The Taliban have freed Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan after three months of captivity as negotiations for the military to withdraw from the tribal areas progress. Ambassador Tariq Azizuddin was freed late May 16 as the Pakistani Army has begun withdrawing its forces from South Waziristan and a series of prisoner exchanges have occurred between the military and the Taliban.
The government denied Azizuddin was released as a result of a deal with the Taliban. “His recovery last evening is purely a result of law enforcement efforts,” said Rehman Malik, an adviser to the interior minister.
Azizuddin, along with his bodyguard and driver, was kidnapped by the Taliban on Feb. 11 as he headed to Kabul through the Khyber Pass. The Taliban demanded the release of Mansour Dadullah, the former Taliban commander of southern Afghanistan who was dismissed by Mullah Omar.
One month ago, Azizuddin was seen on a Taliban videotape asking the government to “do all they can to protect our lives and to answer all the demands of the Mujahedeen of Taliban in order to secure our release.” The release of Azizuddin is a sign negotiations between the Taliban and the government are nearly completed.
The Army withdraws from South Waziristan
As Azizuddin was released the Pakistani Army started withdrawing its forces from the Mehsud tribal regions in South Waziristan. The Pakistani government has been in negotiations with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, the umbrella Taliban organization that united movements in the tribal areas and the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province.
The military pulled back its forces from the Chag Malai, Spinkay Raghzay and Kotkai areas in South Waziristan, which are “strategic positions in the Mehsud area,” according to Dawn. The military said the units were not withdrawing but were being “relocated and readjusted to allow displaced people to return to their homes.”
Baitullah fought pitched battles with the military in South Waziristan in January. The Taliban overran two military forts in Saklatoi and Sararogha, and fought the Pakistani Army to a standstill. Baitullah has been behind a concerted suicide bombing campaign throughout Pakistan in 2007 and was behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
Prisoner swaps underway
Prior to the Army withdrawal from South Waziristan, the Taliban and the military were exchanging prisoners. The Taliban claimed to have upwards of 80 security personnel in captivity, while the government has arrested scores of Taliban fighters during military operations.
In the latest prisoner swap, 23 Taliban fighters and six security personnel were exchanged. Two other exchanges are said to have taken place. The government insists no foreign al Qaeda fighters were freed. But the government has a history of releasing al Qaeda operatives as part of prisoner exchanges.
Multimedia presentation of the senior Taliban commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Click to view.
Negotiations continue despite Taliban attacks in Afghanistan
The Pakistani ruling political parties signaled they were willing to negotiate a peace accord with the Taliban prior to winning the election in February. The Awami National Party, a secular Pashtun party opposed to military action against the Taliban, won the provincial election in the Northwest Frontier Province. The Pakistani People’s Party, which controls the federal government, has acceded to the Awami National Party’s wishes to negotiate with the Taliban.
Less than two months after winning the election, the government started talks with the outlawed Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – the Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Sharia Law) in the Malakand Division, which consists of the districts of Swat, Lower Dir, Upper Dir, Buner, and Chitral. 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.
A deal was struck with the TNSM on April 20. The government freed Sufi Mohammed, the ideological leader of the TNSM and one of the most dangerous Taliban leaders in the Northwest Frontier Province. Sufi vowed to continue to push for the imposition of sharia law in the Malakand Division.
Negotiations with Baitullah began shortly after the agreement with the TNSM was inked.
But the peace deal with the TNSM and the deal being negotiated with Baitullah do not require the Taliban to stop attacks in Afghanistan. During interviews with The New York Times, Pakistani leaders made it clear the government is not concerned with halting attacks inside Afghanistan.
“Pakistan will take care of its own problems, you take care of Afghanistan on your side,” Owari Ghani, the governor of the Northwest Frontier Province told The New York Times. “Pakistan is a sovereign state. NATO is in Afghanistan; it’s time they did some soldiering.”
The Taliban has insisted it would continue to strike at NATO and Afghan forces inside Pakistan, using the tribal areas as a safe haven. According to Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar, “the Taliban would not give up resistance against foreign forces in Afghanistan under any possible agreement with the Pakistan government,” BBC Urdu reported. “It was the Taliban’s religious obligation, as Muslims, to evict occupying foreign forces from Afghanistan.”
Faqir Mohammed, the leader of the TNSM in Bajaur and the deputy leader in the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, said attacks would continue despite any peace agreement. He also threatened to attack American soil. “This is jihad for us, and we fully know the price we have to pay for fighting aggressors,” Faqir said during a rally for Taliban fighter killed in a US airstrike this week. “America martyred our people and the blood of our brothers will not go to waste. God willing, we will avenge it by targeting America.”
Cross-border attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan have more than doubled over the past month since negotiations began. “NATO and the United States say cross-border attacks aimed at Afghan and NATO troops have risen from 20 a month in March 2007 to 53 last month,” The New York Times reported. “The United States is particularly concerned about the attacks because they appear to be aimed at Canadian and Dutch troops, whose governments are under pressure to withdraw from the NATO war effort.”
Attacks continue in Pakistan
While attacks have increased in Afghanistan, the violence is down in Pakistan. Prior to a cease-fire in February and the onset of negotiations in March, the country experienced scores of major suicide attacks. The large-scale suicide attacks have ceased, but the Taliban is still conducting smaller suicide and conventional attacks against government forces in the tribal areas.
On May 16, the Taliban beheaded a Pakistani soldier in Bajaur and killed two security officials in a roadside bomb attack in Kohat. The government has been fighting pitched battles with the Taliban in Darra Adam Khel as the Taliban closed down the Indus Highway, the major north-south artery in the Northwest Frontier Province.
The Taliban has refused to abide by past peace agreements. 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 Taliban took advantage of the peace deals to expand 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.
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.
For details on the proposed peace agreement in South Waziristan, see Pakistan is negotiating a new peace agreement with Baitullah Mehsud.
See The Fall of Northwestern Pakistan: An Online History for more information on the rise of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and the peace agreements signed between the government and the Taliban.
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