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Tribal Areas Challenge Pakistan


The Director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center told congress recently that success in ending the safe havens Pakistan's tribal areas rests with the new government in Islamabad. But according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Pakistan has not been able to defeat terrorists inside its borders despite American assistance. And Pakistan's top Taliban commander suspended peace talks with the country's new government.

One of the problems that the new government in Islamabad has inherited is the challenge of ending militant violence in the country. The coalition government led by the Pakistan People's Party says it is determined to stop fundamentalists in the tribal region from giving safe haven to al-Qaida fighters. But the government says military force alone cannot achieve that objective and that it will also pursue negotiations.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher agrees. He told reporters last month that some tribal leaders are ready and willing to work with the government. "I just spent an hour, probably an hour-and-a-half, with about 10 representatives of various tribal elders and representatives of tribes from the border areas -- both the Pakistan side and the Afghanistan side," said Boucher. "The message I got from them is, 'Work with us. Support the jirga [i.e., the assembly of tribal elders] process. We can talk these things out. We can bring people over and we can work with you as necessary.'"

A Complicated Threat

Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the umbrella militant group Tehrik-e-Taliban, has pulled out of the peace talks, saying the Pakistan government must withdraw troops from the region.

Heritage Foundation scholar and former U.S. diplomat to Islamabad Lisa Curtis says ceding to Mehsud's demand may provide a temporary respite from the suicide bombings in Pakistan. But, she adds, it will not stem the international terrorist threat emanating from the region. "If the Pakistan military begins pulling back from this region, that is only going to increase the ability of Taliban elements to cross into Afghanistan and fight the coalition forces as well as improve the capabilities of al-Qaida to train and prepare for its next international attack," says Curtis.

South Asia expert Walter Andersen of The Johns Hopkins University notes that the new Pakistan government will have to use a "carrot and stick" approach. The carrot, or incentive, he says, would be to address the militants' concerns about the need for economic development in Pakistan's border region. "But the stick [, i.e., the sanction] has to be that if we find that you are doing something that violates the spirit and the intent of the agreement, we are going to crack down," says Andersen.

But the problem is complicated. Andersen says Baitullah Mehsud and other militants will not lay down their guns that easily. He recalls that they violated a cease-fire agreement with President Pervez Musharraf two years ago. Then, Andersen says, there are tribal issues to consider. "Mehsud himself has a certain tribe. And he has an enemy across from him in a different valley, the South Waziris. And then you have the foreigner/local issue, the al-Qaida, which is entrenched in that area [and has foreigners among them]. I am sure they are not negotiating with the al-Qaida. They are negotiating with the Taliban."

The fact that there are several militant groups involved in the negotiations also complicates matters. Many analysts say that if one group agrees to shun violence in its territory, another group may not abide by the agreement and continue fighting.

The Afghanistan Factor

According to analyst Walter Andersen, there are also concerns that cross-border militant attacks into Afghanistan will intensify if negotiations fail to stem the violence in Pakistan. "And for NATO, [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], us [i.e., the United States] and the Afghan government, the big concern, of course, is the cross-border activity and Pakistan as a safe haven for groups that are attacking NATO troops and Afghan government troops," says Andersen. "As you know, there was an attack on [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and assembled ambassadors in Kabul [recently]. This is a dangerous situation. And we will have to respond to it in some way. The Americans simply will not accept the notion of troops being killed from the safe havens in Pakistan."

Lisa Curtis at the Heritage Foundation says the ideal solution would be to reach out to low-level and less ideologically committed Taliban elements and demonstrate that the United States and Pakistan will cooperate to drive out al-Qaida from the tribal areas. Curtis say that while the new government in Islamabad is committed to fighting terrorism, it should realize that it needs U.S. support in dealing with militants who pose an international threat.

"You don't want to cede territory to the worst terrorists and you don't want to improve their capabilities to conduct terrorism. I think that is the main concern. Pakistan right now is the 'ground zero' in terms of a threat from al-Qaida. And American officials have a responsibility to the American people to prevent another major terrorist attack," says Curtis. "And that involves driving al-Qaida out of its safe haven in Pakistan."

Curtis adds that the Bush administration already has committed to a multi-million dollar aid program for the tribal areas. "The U.S. is committed to counterinsurgency training of the Frontier Corps, the local Pashtun military troops that are stationed there. It is committed to economic development of the region to try to drive a wedge between al-Qaida and the locals who live there."

Some analysts who have visited the region recently say that going after the militants will be extremely difficult because al-Qaida fighters are being harbored by local tribes and any attempt to destroy their hideouts would likely claim the lives of at least some Pakistani civilians.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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