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Pakistani Tribal Areas Pose Serious Challenges

Recent violence in northwest Pakistan is raising concerns that a cease-fire between the government and pro-Taliban militants in the region may be breaking down. However, a Pakistan army spokesman says Islamabad will continue to pursue a dialog with the military groups, even after the militants suspended peace talks with the government.

Pakistan’s new coalition government began talks last month with militants led by Baitullah Mehsud, the man Pakistani authorities have implicated in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benzazir Bhutto. The militants declared a cease-fire during the recent talks, but Mehsud says no peace deal is possible until Pakistani troops withdraw from the tribal areas near the Afghan border.

Lahore-based Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid says Pakistan needs a comprehensive peace plan for the tribal areas that combines force, persuasion, and economic development. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Rashid notes that both the newly elected governments in Islamabad and the Northwest Frontier Province are secular and anti-fundamentalist. He observes that the ruling party in the province and the Pakistani Taleban are Pashtun. According to Ahmed Rashid, the real question is how to convince the militants “not only not to attack the Pakistan army but also to refrain from doing so in Afghanistan.” First, he says, the central government needs to have a “visionary strategic policy” that will bring the federally administered tribal areas, or FATA, into the mainstream. The government, says Mr. Rashid, wants to “change the order of the present political setup, which is a 200-year-old British invention” that has not changed much since then. However, in the short term, he says, the government can do a great deal, such as “talk to the militants” and “do aid and development.” At the same time, Mr. Rashid stresses, Islamabad has to “protect and sustain Pashtun civil society, which has been utterly destroyed by the Pakistani Taliban over the last 5 or 6 years – since 9/11.”

Ahmed Rashid’s latest book, Descent into Chaos: U.S. Policy and the Failure of Nation Building in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia, will be published next month. Mr. Rashid argues that the new Pakistani government needs the “support and patience” of the Bush administration rather than what he calls a “single-minded desire for military solutions.” He says its appears that Washington has “agreed for the moment” that it will not launch any missile strikes against militant targets in the tribal areas, which provides everyone some “breathing space.” Mr. Rashid says the Pakistani military should “stop affording sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan,” and he believes the Pakistani Taliban “should be arrested if they continue militancy.” And then, he says, the government can move in with economic aid, much of which “is being made available by the Bush administration.”

Afghan journalist Nabi Misdaz, a former BBC broadcaster and author of Afghanistan: Political Frailty and Foreign Interference, says he thinks the new Pakistani government has a real opportunity to improve the situation in the tribal areas. He agrees with Ahmed Rashid that Washington should avoid championing the mainly military policy espoused by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Mr. Misdaq says the reason why President Musharraf’s dealing with the tribal areas “did not come to much fruition” was because there was “absolutely no investment and no help from the government." Mr. Misdaq suggests that, if Washington invests in “building schools, road, and clinics” and the people can actually see concrete results, the current negotiations “will be much more lasting.”

But Ahmed Rashid acknowledges Washington’s deep concern that the porous border in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan means men and equipment can go back and forth, thus serving as a conduit for terrorism. But he says that can stop only if there is “real cooperation” between the two countries. He notes that President Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai had a “very poor relationship,” but now he thinks there is a good chance of improvement.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Roy Gutman and author of the recently released book, How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan, is currently editor of McClatchy Newspapers. He says the new Pakistani government is committed to trying to find a political solution instead of a military one, and they have “every reason to be taken seriously.” Mr. Gutman says Washington would be ill advised to “lecture” the Pakistani leadership on “what they should – and should not – do,” given that America’s military approach to the problem in the tribal areas “has been highly unsuccessful.”

Pakistan army spokesman General Athar Abbas told VOA earlier this week that the government will continue to pursue talks with pro-Taliban militant groups. Even though they seemed to have broken down for a time, he suggests that it is too soon to declare that the ceasefire is over. Washington, however, wants Pakistan to rein-in the militants. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte says Washington will not be satisfied until the militants can no longer use the tribal regions to plan, trains, or execute attacks. He adds that both Washington and Islamabad understand that a successful anti-terrorism strategy also must include economic development work and improvements in education. Whether the U.S. Congress will be willing to go along with that is questionable. Members of Congress from both parties expressed skepticism this week that U.S. aid money to Pakistan will be able to stabilize Pakistan’s frontier areas and some of them urged that future funding be subject to “strict guarantees” that money is used to fight terrorism.

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