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Doubts Surround Pakistan's Peace Talks with Taliban Groups


Pakistan's attempts in 2006 to strike peace deals with pro-Taliban groups were widely viewed as failures that allowed the militants to grow stronger. Now, with the country's new government again focused on peace talks, VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad on whether the new deals are different from the previous failures.

Spinkai Raghzai is a rural town in an area of western Pakistan considered a sanctuary for pro-Taliban militants and their allies, including al-Qaida. Here and elsewhere in Pakistan's tribal regions, U.S. missile strikes and Pakistani army operations have killed high-profile terrorists and militant leaders, but the tactics also have left many civilians embittered.

A VOA reporter recently visited the town in South Waziristan and spoke to several residents.

One resident says the military bulldozed her home last month, but it was after the Taliban had left the area. Another man, pointing to rubble that he says was once a market, says soldiers first fired on the area with artillery. He says after everyone had fled, bulldozers destroyed what was left.

In the past, Pakistan's peace deals in the tribal regions have stopped such military operations in exchange for a cease-fire.

In 2005 and 2006, the military reached truces in North and South Waziristan that U.S. officials said allowed militants to increase attacks in Afghanistan and expand their control in Pakistan.

In 2007, the Pakistani military pushed back against the Taliban - and the campaign was blamed for provoking a surge in retaliatory suicide bomb attacks that killed more than 1,000 civilians across the country.

Now, with pro-Taliban groups entrenched throughout the tribal regions as well as some settled areas of Pakistan, the country's new government is trying another round of negotiations to disarm the groups - and the talks have again drawn criticism.

This week the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. General Dan McNeil said any deal must include stopping fighters from crossing the two countries' shared border.

"We have gone back and looked at the data we have over a long period of time when there have been other peace deals," he said. "And the fact is each time the talks resulted in a peace deal we have an increased level of activity."

Pakistani officials insist that unlike previous agreements the new peace talks involve elected government representatives - not the military - and those representatives have more credibility with tribal leaders.

Arshad Abdullah has been participating in the peace talks as the top law minister in the Northwest Frontier Province. He says that even before starting negotiations, militants must agree to stop cross border attacks.

"We have said from the very outset that if they do not agree to these conditions then there is nothing to talk about," he said.

But even peace talks supporters are skeptical the Pakistani Taliban will stop supporting the Afghan Taliban. Last week, Pakistan's top Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud said he would consider a peace deal in Pakistan, but he would not stop attacking foreign troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's former spy agency chief Asad Durrani says people living near the disputed border known as the Durand line who are sympathetic to the Taliban will not immediately change their behavior because of a peace agreement.

"If we expect that these people will completely prevent the crossings of the Durand line - that cannot be done, simply impossible," he said. "If we think that we can prevent those people who feel motivated to go on the other side and help the Afghan resistance - that again is mission impossible."

Durrani says once elected officials convince tribal region residents that they are working in their interest, then the officials can focus on more difficult problems such as border security and support for the Afghan Taliban.

U.S. officials have opposed the peace talks, but Britain's Defense Secretary Des Brown says he supports negotiations. He says even though some militants would not disarm, military action alone cannot solve the problems in the tribal regions.

Talat Masood is a defense analyst and retired general who says that throughout Pakistan's history, the country's various rulers have found it better to negotiate, rather than fight, with armed groups in the ethnic-Pashtun belt.

"The ethnic tribes are extremely aggressive when they think that the government opposes them," he explained. "They are very independent minded and it is always best to engage with them rather than use military force."

Despite U.S. criticism of the deal and pessimism even among Pakistanis about finding a lasting peace agreement, negotiator Arshad Abdullah says that after more than six years of failed policies, critics should give the new approach time.

"With these agreements hopefully Afghanistan will be better off. It is a trial. Basically we want the world community to give us a chance and see how successful we are," he said. "It is a matter of three or four months and within six months hopefully we will have an even better situation."

While government negotiators and a few militant groups have signed peace deals, talks are still continuing with representatives of top Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, NATO officials report attacks during the month of April rose 50 percent from the year before.