In Pakistan, Doubts Over the Fight in Tribal Areas
By CARLOTTA GALL and ISMAIL KHAN, The New York Times, February 12, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The announcement of a cease-fire just a few weeks into a determined military operation against one of Pakistan’s most wanted men, the militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, has once again raised questions about the Pakistani government’s commitment to combating militancy in the country’s tribal areas.
Pakistani analysts said they feared that the cease-fire was reminiscent of past deals that allowed the militants to regroup and fortify their stronghold, turning the tribal areas into a veritable ministate for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. United States officials have long voiced reservations that any further deals with the militants would be counterproductive.
Spokesmen for Mr. Mehsud, who Pakistani and American officials say is linked to Al Qaeda and the attack that killed the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, announced the cease-fire last week. The government has not confirmed it, and a military spokesman said military operations against Mr. Mehsud and his followers, estimated in the thousands, were continuing.
But two senior security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, said a cease-fire was in place.
The cease-fire announcement followed three weeks of intensive fighting that began in a mountainous part of South Waziristan on Jan. 16, when security forces mounted a large-scale offensive against Mr. Mehsud and his forces. Reports of the clashes said scores of soldiers and militants were killed.
The army imposed a debilitating economic blockade, coupled with a three-pronged operation to box in Mr. Mehsud and his militants, using the full force of the army’s arsenal, including fighter jets and artillery. The blockade was so effective that for weeks little information about the campaign emerged from the area.
The campaign has been part of the most serious push against militants in several years, led by the new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who Western diplomats had hoped would refocus the military’s effort in the tribal areas.
The acting interior minister, Hamid Nawaz Khan, suggested that military operations were bearing fruit and that the militants were on the run. “They start asking for negotiations themselves after they find themselves weak due to the military operation,” he said.
The reasons for what appears to be a reversal by the government remain unclear. But given the bitter experience of past deals, and the army’s apparent readiness to pursue military operations against Mr. Mehsud this time, the news of the cease-fire has been greeted with dismay by some Pakistani analysts.
In an interview, Mehmood Shah, a retired brigadier who served as the chief civil administrator of the tribal areas after 9/11, said he understood that the military operation was going well and according to plan, despite difficulties because of the terrain and the harsh winter weather.
He warned that any cease-fire or peace deal with Mr. Mehsud, before his forces were sufficiently degraded, would work against the military’s goals. “The army should not be doing a deal, and in the case that they are, it would be a mistake,” he said.
Mr. Shah has long been an outspoken critic of previous peace deals with the tribes and the militants, as have American officials and analysts like those with the International Crisis Group, which described such deals as appeasement of the militants.
The militants based in the tribal areas, which straddle the border with Afghanistan, have been blamed for carrying out more than 60 suicide attacks in Pakistan over the last year, including the one on Dec. 27 that killed Ms. Bhutto. The militants have also been blamed for initiating numerous clashes with the Pakistani armed forces.
After a year of political turmoil, Western diplomats said they feared that one more “spark event,” like another high-profile assassination, could ignite the kind of chaos across Pakistan that militants thrive on.
Mr. Mehsud, who has threatened the Pakistani state like no other militant and is thought to have hundreds of suicide bombers poised to attack, is the greatest concern. A maverick commander, Mr. Mehsud now leads the Tehrik-i-Taliban, or Movement of the Taliban, an umbrella group coordinating the actions of all the militants in Pakistan.
The Pakistani Army’s campaign began in earnest in November, when it mounted a large operation against the militants in the Swat Valley. The army then clashed fiercely with militants who seized control of the gun-manufacturing town of Darra Adamkhel, south of the city of Peshawar, in January. But the most testing operation has been the blockade against Mr. Mehsud.
The timing for a tough military operation was good, Mr. Shah said, because the political parties that usually protest are busy preparing for parliamentary elections on Feb. 18. Also, with the sharp escalation of violence in Pakistan, the public, which generally opposes military action in the tribal areas, was facing the fact that some military action was necessary, Mr. Shah said.
He said the plan had been to seal off all entry points to the Mehsud tribe for a month or two to prevent anyone from getting out and to press Mr. Mehsud’s forces and block the flow of their supplies. Once his forces were weakened, he said, Mr. Mehsud could be given over to the traditional system of justice in the semiautonomous region, where tribes take responsibility for one of their own behaving badly.
Although Mr. Mehsud appeared to be amassing more influence by forming his umbrella group, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, he has failed to keep the various militant groups, whose loyalties remain based on tribes and regions, united under him.
One of the aims of the Tehrik-i-Taliban was to coordinate and take joint decisions on talks with the government. Some militants have argued in favor of halting attacks on the Pakistan military so as to preserve the tribal areas as a haven for the fight against American and NATO forces across the border.
Militants from the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe in South Waziristan are now pro-government and are staying neutral toward Mr. Mehsud’s struggle with the Pakistani government. They have pushed back attempts by his fighters to fall back into their area.
In North Waziristan, one of the important militant leaders, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, has kept to a cease-fire. Farther north, in another tribal agency, Bajaur, Faqir Muhammad, a firebrand figure second only to Mr. Mehsud, has remained quiet, too.
The cease-fire now fits a pattern of what has been an uneven approach to the problem of militancy by the government since its forces entered the tribal areas in 2002, first trying military operations that resulted in high casualties, then suing for peace.
Between March and July 2004, the government imposed a blockade similar to the recent one and moved into the same Mehsud area of South Waziristan only after tough fighting. But what it won through hard battle, it lost through hasty negotiations in February 2005. The military withdrew from the areas as part of the agreement and pledged not to carry out operations in future.
One bewildered senior government official at the time recalls having asked his bosses, “Whose compulsion is it to strike a deal, ours or the militants?”
Accusing the government of violating its terms, Mr. Mehsud resumed attacks on security forces in July 2005. Despite efforts, the peace agreement with Mr. Mehsud could not be resurrected.
Another deal, struck Sept. 5, 2006, with militants in North Waziristan, also fell apart. Gradually the government came to acknowledge that both deals suffered from the same inadequacy, the lack of any enforceable monitoring mechanism, Mr. Shah said.
Last August, Mr. Mehsud’s men captured 242 soldiers in one of the most humiliating moments for the Pakistani Army in recent years. The government eventually negotiated their release but only after releasing 24 militants, some of whom had been convicted of planning suicide bombings.
The deal rankled some within the military. “This was a bitter pill that we had to swallow,” one senior military officer said later. President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged at the time that the deal was necessary to win the release of the soldiers, but he vowed to pursue Mr. Mehsud.
United States officials have already voiced reservations about any further deal-making.
Owais Ahmed Ghani, the new civilian governor of the North-West Frontier Province, which abuts the tribal areas, has meanwhile warned that the local government in the tribal areas and adjoining districts is so fragile that it cannot combat the growing militancy.
“The government system in settled districts and the political system in tribal regions are heading toward a state of collapse,” he told journalists recently.