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Is a Pakistan Truce Good for the United States?

Interviewee: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 21, 2008

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Daniel Markey, a former State Department specialist on South Asia for the Policy Planning Council, has just returned from a trip to Pakistan. He says the United States should be concerned about the negotiations going on between the Pakistan army and tribal leaders because in the past, truces between the two have led to increased infiltration of terrorists into Afghanistan. This time, however, may be different. The Pakistani army seems to have moved in force to the frontier regions; further, it is negotiating with tribal leaders to give them responsibility for bringing the militants under control, instead of negotiating with the Taliban.

You've recently been in Pakistan. There are discussions going on between the new government in Pakistan and the tribal leaders, some of whom might be aligned with terrorists. Is this something the United States should be concerned about or not?

It's pretty clear that we should definitely be concerned about these talks. According to NATO commanders, as well as the U.S. government, there has been a spike in terms of cross-border infiltration from Pakistan into Afghanistan in recent weeks and months, as compared to last year. It does appear that whatever is happening on the Pakistani side of the border, it is not helping matters in Afghanistan. The kind of deal that we're seeing coming together—and it hasn't quite been finalized between the Pakistani government, and basically that means the Pakistani military with a bit of a civilian face to it—and the Mehsud tribes [in South Waziristan] is similar to the sort of deals we've seen in the past. Those had pretty much always ended poorly. They produced temporary cease-fires that haven’t done all that much to end movement into Afghanistan or to cut down on the sort of safe havens that international terrorists have enjoyed. So it's similar to that but this time there may be some significant differences and this is something the Pakistani army is taking pains to try to point out.

One of the differences is that this time the Pakistani army has really moved into the area in force and enforced an economic blockade against Mehsud tribes before starting negotiations. It has inflicted various punishments on some of the tribal villages to demonstrate that the army, in fact, has the upper hand. That's one difference. The other difference that I was told about on my trip is that this time the Pakistani government claims to be negotiating, not with the Taliban directly, but with tribal leaders. This is a potentially significant difference because the army—or the Pakistani government—claims that by negotiating with tribal leaders, not militants, they can hold these tribal leaders accountable for enforcing the agreement and make them, the tribal leaders, crack down on the militants who are among them.

Can you explain the relationship between tribal leaders and the militants, the Taliban?

On the militant side the foremost name is Baitullah Mehsud, who has been held accountable by many parties, the United States among them, for being involved in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December, and for being the mastermind and organizer behind a series of suicide bombings that have gone off throughout Pakistan over the past year. He is viewed as a menace to internal security in Pakistan and is also probably connected to broader terrorist and militant activities in the region and possibly beyond that. Now on the other hand, he comes from the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan. He is not a traditional leader of the Mehsud tribe. He is a self-appointed leader of a group called the “Pakistani Taliban.” There are other leaders, people who have gained leadership either through hereditary titles or because they are popular representatives of the wider tribe, who would be normal negotiating partners with the Pakistani army under these conditions. Those are the leaders whom the Pakistani government claims to be working with to hammer out a deal. Those are the leaders who would be held responsible for making sure people like Baitullah Mehsud and his associates are kept in line if a deal is worked out.

Now the relationship between those more legitimate tribal leaders and militants like Baitullah Mehsud is not entirely clear. By many accounts, at this stage of the game Baitullah Mehsud and the other militants actually have more power than the tribal leaders and are really calling the shots, in which case this may not be a serious distinction that the Pakistani government may be making. That's one reason why the United States and others need to be concerned about this deal.

Recently there was another drone attack on an outpost in the region that apparently killed a senior al-Qaeda leader. What is the relationship between Mehsud and al-Qaeda? Are they allies? Do they work independently?

It is hard to determine the connections between some of the groups. For instance, I think there are three broad categories that the United States needs to be worried about in Pakistan's tribal areas. The first would be that of Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani militant of the Pakistan Taliban. The second would be the Afghan Taliban, sort of symbolized by Mullah Omar, the former leaders of Afghanistan prior to September 11 who fled to Pakistan. The third would be al-Qaeda and other foreign, international terrorists. Now the connections between all of these as well as many other types of militant organizations in the area are often very, very difficult to discern.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

It would appear, given Baitullah Mehsud's own rhetoric, and he's talked about the need to destroy New York, to destroy London, to destroy Washington, that he is definitely, at least rhetorically, on a similar page as al-Qaeda. He has claimed to have had contact with al-Qaeda leaders, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former al-Qaeda leader who was killed in Iraq. Also his wide use of suicide bombing as a tactic is something that didn't really happen much in Pakistan much beforehand. So it’s a relatively new thing and it's obviously very consistent with the wider al-Qaeda strategy. So he may be connected to that as well. Whether he is actually involved in helping to harbor senior al-Qaeda leaders or has regular connections with them, is at this point impossible to say.

Omar, the former leader of the Taliban, who was chased out of Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda, are both believed to be in Pakistan, right?

Yes, they are probably somewhere in Pakistan. The best guess on Mullah Omar tends to be that he is operating not in the FATA—the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which are sort of in the northern part of the border with Afghanistan—but somewhere further south, in a province called Balochistan, somewhere probably near the city of Quetta, where a lot of Afghan refugees have gone. But that's a guess; nobody knows for sure. Al-Qaeda leaders have regularly been targeted in the northern part of the tribal areas. That's where the most recent Predator [air] strike in Bajaur occurred. Now it's also important to note that other al-Qaeda leadership have been found in other parts of Pakistan, in major cities like Karachi or Rawalpindi. So if you are looking to hide in Pakistan, there are many ways to do it. There's the urban jungle and there are the mountains of the tribal areas.

Over the weekend, President Bush met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. Apparently they had a pretty good meeting of minds, at least from the public statements. Is that right?

I don’t know anything about what went on behind closed doors. The public statements did reflect continued interests in close U.S.-Pakistan relations. There has been some reporting in Pakistan and in Indian media that Bush said something about how the Kashmir dispute looks like it's more ripe for resolution than it has been in the past. Presumably he's trying to encourage ongoing talks that are actually happening right now between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India in Islamabad to pick up the pace on that side of conflict. The only thing that's worthwhile noting in terms of these nice statements on jointly fighting terrorism is that in the Pakistani political context, up until now, the opposition to President Pervez Musharraf has at times adopted a more anti-American kind of approach. The fact that the prime minister came out and pretty clearly identified himself with the president of the United States and said they had a good meeting is helpful in the Pakistani context.

Going back to those truce negotiations, they have been on hold for a while. What's the issue?

Maybe the announcement of a deal came before it was really complete and there may be a lot of details that need to be sorted out. But it appears to be going forward. There has been an exchange of prisoners; the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan who had been held hostage has just been released. The Pakistani government has released a number of Pakistani Taliban. The cease-fire hasn't entirely held; there have been several attacks on both sides, but it is certainly more of a cease-fire than there had been previously. We still have indications that this deal is moving ahead.

Should the United States be very upset about this, as some of generals have said, or are they misreading it?

The United States need to be watching very carefully. There are a couple of red lines that can't be crossed by the Pakistanis. If we see a sustained infiltration of militants into Afghanistan in the next few months and if the situation deteriorates further, then it would be in the United States' interest to have Pakistan cancel this deal, especially if the deal itself has no provision for enforcing border control.

But at the same time the Pakistani army has been exceedingly stressed over the last year and having a longer cease-fire would allow the Pakistani army to regroup a bit and that might be a helpful thing. Also we talked about the kind of political skirmishing that's going on in Islamabad. It might be good to have a reduced level of national violence so they can focus on other major national issues. If a cease-fire were to hold, it would give at least some time for some of the training efforts that are ongoing with the Pakistani paramilitary forces. Also some of the smaller-scale development projects that the Pakistani government and international donors, including the United States, are trying to do in this area could actually begin to get some traction if the level of violence is reduced.

Eventually Pakistan will have to make deals with these tribal groups. There's no other option. This is part of their country. They need to come to political terms and the real issue is not that they make deals but that these deals be more enforceable and that these deals actually get at the problems that trouble the United States and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] in terms of cross-border infiltration or the harboring of terrorists. That's what needs to happen. The deals in and of themselves are not a problem.

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