Criticism has been leveled against the Pakistani government’s efforts to hold talks with militant groups. While concerns about the Taliban regrouping remain valid, it is in America’s long-term security interest not only to support the multidimensional peace plans being formulated, but refrain from words and actions that could jeopardize the process.
Immediately after the February elections, the Pakistani government launched peace talks with militants in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). On May 21st, the Frontier government led by the secular Awami National Party (ANP) signed a comprehensive peace deal with militants associated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) in NWFP. The provincial government agreed to allow the imposition of Islamic law in NWFP’s Malakand division. The local Taliban vowed to respect the writ of the state, hand over foreign militants to the government, and renounce militancy.
At the federal level, talks continue between the government and FATA-based TTP and have led to prisoner exchanges and the reorientation of army positions to facilitate the return of displaced people to the region.
While Pakistanis have welcomed the peace initiatives, the United States has expressed reservations. Rather than reservations, the United States should offer something entirely different: military restraint and support for the negotiations.
The first priority of the Pakistani government should be to establish peace and stability within its own borders. If the new leadership is seen to place the interests of the United States before its own, it will experience the same legitimacy problems faced by Musharraf. This will undermine the democratic transition in Pakistan and will be a source of instability in the country and the region.
If current negotiations fail because of militant recalcitrance, the Pakistani public will support the use of force knowing all other channels were exhausted. This will lead to greater public ownership of the fight against extremism, which is in the long-term interest of the United States.
The Pakistani government recognizes the need for a regional approach in order for peace to become sustainable on the Pakistani side of the border. But it also believes in a step-by-step approach. Once it has established a “working relationship” with local Taliban, the Pakistanis could potentially facilitate talks between NATO, the Afghan Taliban, and the Afghan government.
In recent months NATO allies and the Karzai government have exhibited battle fatigue and seem willing to talk to “moderate” Taliban. The ruling ANP has relied on elements of the Pakhtoonwali (traditional tribal code) to reach out to Pashtun militants and could do the same across the border in southern Afghanistan. The ANP also enjoys close ties with the Karzai government and were instrumental in convening an Afghan-Pakistan peace jirga in Kabul in August 2007. Another joint peace jirga, this time with NATO troops and moderate Taliban from both sides of the border could prove to be an effective step forward.
U.S. Game Plan
To support peace talks and also preserve its security interests in the region, the United States should first encourage better coordination. Pakistan’s political transition and internal negotiations have led to delays in high-level coordination meetings with NATO and Afghanistan – these talks must resume immediately so that during negotiations between the Pakistanis and militants, NATO and Afghan forces can ratchet up security along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The recent arrival of 3,200 US troops in Afghanistan is a positive development. They should be deployed to the provinces contiguous to Pakistan’s tribal belt in order to counter the increase in militant infiltration during peace talks.
At the same time, the United States should urge the Pakistani government to develop joint monitoring mechanisms with Taliban peace signatories so as to ensure compliance. For instance, a time-table should be established whereby the Taliban would begin to identify and hand over the estimated 150-400 al-Qaeda associated foreign militants in the tribal belt. Consequences for violations should also be defined.
In addition, the United States must refrain from drone attacks on Pakistani territory during peace negotiations. This week’s devastating air strikes in Mohmand Agency that killed eleven Pakistani paramilitary troops is not only tragic but has worsened relations between the two countries at a time when increased cooperation is required. Similarly, the recent Damadola attack in Pakistan’s tribal belt killed at least 13 people including innocent civilians. This reminded Pakistanis of a similar drone strike in January 2006, which occurred on the eve of a peace deal that was to be signed between government forces and the Taliban. Pakistanis see these attacks as a direct attempt to sabotage the peace process, which results in calls for revenge against the United States and invites retaliatory attacks within Pakistan’s settled areas. None of these outcomes bode well for peace in the region.
Also, extending financial support to the $4 billion peace plan proposed by the NWFP government would do well for U.S.-Pakistan relations. If approved by parliament, the plan will attempt to reduce militancy in the Frontier by expanding the police force, establishing regional religious peace conferences, setting up a 600 million rupee rural fund, mobilizing village peace committees, and generating employment through the implementation of infrastructure projects.
Finally, the United States should call for improved lines of communication within the Pakistani government as the federal and provincial negotiating teams lack a coherent strategy. The federal government has mostly excluded the provincial government from talks with militants in FATA. Thus, the provincial government cannot hold TTP members in the Frontier province accountable if violations occur by their counterparts in the tribal belt.
This has led one official to observe that while the Tehreek e Taliban have somewhat of a unified command structure across FATA and the NWFP, the government appears divided, giving the militants an edge.
This is a critical time for Pakistan as it pursues a home-grown strategy to fight extremism. Rather than undermine the approach, the United States would do well to bolster it in a way that would serve its long-term security interests in both Pakistan and the region.