Western allies must give Pakistan peace a chance

Western allies must give Pakistan peace a chance: analysts
AFP - April 27, 2008

ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Pakistan's new government is expected to sign a peace deal with Taliban rebels this week, but the pact can only succeed if US and NATO allies with troops in Afghanistan give it time, analysts say.

The government last week drew up a draft accord with militants in Pakistan's tribal belt bordering Afghanistan -- the possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden -- while a rebel commander declared a unilateral ceasefire.

But Washington and Kabul have expressed fears that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban will regroup in the lawless mountain region if the new administration abandons President Pervez Musharraf's hardline support for the "war on terror".

"Pakistan's new leaders must be given a chance to address the issue through political means," said Hasan Askari, a political analyst at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC.

"If they can wean away some groups from militancy it will be a success, and those who insist on violence can be dealt with through other means," he said.

A coalition led by the parties of former premiers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif defeated Musharraf's backers in elections in February and quickly announced a rethink of the president's counter-terrorism strategy.

Musharraf's army operations against militants who fled during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks have been hugely unpopular at home.

The violence has spread across Pakistan since early 2007, with a wave of suicide bombings killing more than 1,000 people, including Bhutto herself.

The new government has vowed not to negotiate with "foreign" rebels -- meaning mainly Arab Al-Qaeda rebels or Afghan Taliban -- but says it will talk to pro-Taliban Pakistani tribesmen who want reconciliation.

These include Taliban chieftain Baitullah Mehsud, the rebel who ordered his fighters on Wednesday to stop all attacks. The previous government accused him of masterminding Bhutto's assassination on December 27 last year.

The head of security in the tribal areas from 2002-2006, Brigadier Mahmood Shah, said Pakistan's new leaders should be cautious.

"The government should not be in a hurry to sign a peace deal with militants," Shah told AFP. "It needs to understand all dimensions of the problem, otherwise it will just be a piece of paper."

In-depth talks with the region's ever-feuding patchwork of Pashtun tribes were needed to prevent future disagreements about which chieftains they would obey, while development assistance is vital, he added.

American and Afghan officials remain sceptical, though, about any kind of peace deal in an area that the United States has branded a haven for Al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels plotting attacks in Afghanistan and internationally.

The US demonstrated its preferred approach earlier this year when it launched several missile strikes in the tribal belt. It has also criticised earlier, failed, peace deals in the region.

Shah admitted that the "success of the peace accord will depend on a reduction in attacks in Afghanistan" but estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of militant activity there originated in Pakistan.

"You cannot underwrite American security in Afghanistan. Foreign and Afghan forces also have a responsibility to check cross-border movement," said Shah.

Analyst Rasul Baksh Rais said the use of force by international and Afghan troops in Afghanistan had not produced results there and would also fail in Pakistan.

"Musharraf did the same thing as (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai was doing and as a result both have alienated the local population," said Rais, a political scientist at Lahore's University of Management Sciences.

"This new government needs to have an opportunity to do what it wants to. If it fails it can go back to the old strategy."

Rais added that previous peace pacts did not work "because of US pressure."

"When Pakistan was making deals the US started hitting targets directly and that raised questions about Islamabad's ability to handle things," he said.

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