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l May 2004 l

The Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

l Vol 4, No 1 l

F E A T U R E

Pakistan: Politics of retreat

Kanchan Lakshman


Ever since President Musharraf announced a turn-around on his country's support to the Taliban and Al Qaeda on September 19, 2001, Pakistan has been treading a thin line between placating the domestic Islamist extremist constituency and maintaining the alliance with the United States. Since the volte face, Pakistan has arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda/Taliban operatives, handing a majority of them over to US custody. Last week, however, saw the military regime adopt a strategy of amnesty, not an uncommon approach across many theatres of anti-state violence in South Asia.

Five tribesmen accused of sheltering Al Qaeda terrorists surrendered to the Pakistan army at a Jirga (tribal council) on April 24, 2004. The five men, led by Nek Mohammed, from the Zalikhel tribe turned themselves in before the Jirga and reportedly pledged loyalty to Pakistan in return for clemency. "We give amnesty to these people in return for their pledge of brotherhood and loyalty," said Peshawar Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain after the wanted men joined him in the ceremony that occurred at a Madrassa at Shakai, South Waziristan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region.

The military regime has reportedly agreed to halt its operations against Nek Mohammed's tribal combatants, set free most of the 163 suspected Al Qaeda supporters who were captured during the March 2004 operations, and provide a grant of Rupees 90.1 million for development in Waziristan. In return, Nek Mohammed and his clique promised to refrain from attacks on Pakistani forces and the U.S. troops in adjacent Afghanistan. Among others, the unwritten agreement also specifies that: local tribesmen will not provide protection to 'foreign terrorists' (Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks among others) in the FATA; the tribesmen will surrender their heavy arms to local authorities; tribesmen are to ensure registration of all foreigners who would then be given amnesty and residence by the state.

As a result, the tribal combatants, designated as 'most wanted' only a month ago, were seen embracing the military regime's representatives after a deal reportedly brokered by leaders of the Islamist grouping, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). Startled by the bonhomie expressed at the surrender ceremony, a Western diplomat in Islamabad said, "How can you go and fight these people last month and embrace them this month?"

The 30-something Nek Mohammed, who was a 'commander' at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule, and his tribal combatants had, in March, led a fierce resistance to an army-led offensive on their hideouts in the remote South Waziristan area, where senior Al Qaeda leaders are thought to have taken refuge. At least 145 people, including 46 troops, were killed during these operations. Some Western diplomats have claimed that Nek not only harboured, but also supplied arms and men to Central Asian Al Qaeda-linked terrorists for cross-border attacks on aid workers, troops and Government targets in Afghanistan over the past 12 to 18 months. "He is, indirectly or directly, responsible for the deaths of up to 400 people in Afghanistan," an unnamed Western diplomat based in Pakistan told AFP.

Since the March operations, the state had been threatening military action against the tribal fighters and had also postponed deadlines for threatened military action on two occasions. That Nek Mohammed, reportedly a popular figure in South Waziristan, was a crucial actor is evident from the fact that a wide spectrum of powers within the Pakistani state was involved in the negotiations. According to Pakistani analyst Nasim Zehra, tribal elders, two elected parliamentarians, the Frontier Constabulary, Army regulars, Special Forces, the Governor, tribal agents, FATA officials and the President were variously involved at different stages.

After the March debacle, the military regime has been attempting to isolate the five 'most wanted' in order to neutralize the estimated 400-odd foreign fighters believed to be holed up in the region. The objective is to either neutralize them within Pakistani territory or flush them out into Afghanistan, where the US troops are stationed, but this has evidently not worked. While a fair amount of ambivalence still dominates the military regime's end game, the state has evidently conceded its limited coercive power in the FATA.

The military regime is currently caught in the dilemma of protecting the surviving remnants of its own creation, the Taliban, and the need to project the image of a responsible state internationally. The 'do more' exhortations from Washington only add to the complexity by creating a necessity of having to deny a 'retreat' on the state's part in the FATA deal. The continued reversal of the long pursued 'strategic depth theory' is, however, becoming increasingly awkward. While the March 2004 operations in FATA led to heavy casualties for the Pakistani troops and failed to neutralize the Al Qaeda in the region, the aftermath brings to light the perils of the apparent demobilization of the jehadis through conciliatory deals. However, while officially indicating that "There has been reconciliation… achieved through mutual consultation and negotiation", the military regime has had to reiterate at the highest levels, as in the past, that there is no dilution in Pakistan's commitment to eliminate terrorism from its soil.

Though the Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives would try and secure themselves from any future offensive in the region, the demonstration effect of a 'reconciliation' is expected to be high in the immediate future. "The world knows who has really surrendered," Nek Mohammed is reported to have declared at the ceremony before thousands of tribesmen.

While enforcing specificities of any unwritten agreement is troublesome, the chances of the tribesmen abiding by such a deal are very low in a region historically known to defy the writ of the state. More significantly, the real character of relations between the Pakistan Army and the 'rebellious' tribesmen remains murky. It is useful to recall Nek Mohammed's observation at the 'reconciliation' ceremony: "We are loyal to Pakistan and are ready to fight in Kashmir or anywhere else if asked by the Government. It's a propaganda that we were terrorists."

 

Kanchan Lakshman is a Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; and, Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution

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