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Why Pakistan Plays 'Lets Make a Deal'

Author: Daniel S. Markey, Adjunct Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia
May 20, 2008
Foreign Policy


Islamabad is about to cut another deal with the country’s tribal leaders. These agreements rarely last long and appear to have helped no one besides terrorists and hardened militants. But Washington should support the deal making—at least for a little longer.

Moment of calm: A peace agreement could give Pakistani forces a chance to recover from a year of brutal violence.

The Pakistanis are making deals with tribal leaders again. Islamabad now appears to be in the final stages of protracted negotiations with leaders of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, one of seven semiautonomous areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. The recent history of these negotiations has not been a happy one. By nearly all accounts, Taliban and al Qaeda have taken full advantage of the breathing space in Pakistan’s tribal areas to execute attacks in Pakistan,Afghanistan, and beyond. American critics have every reason to ask whether Islamabad’s latest deal is precisely the sort of appeasement that might reduce violence in Pakistanin the short term, but which in time promises an even more dangerous insurgency and terrorist menace.

Nor should Pakistanis or Americans kid themselves: In a few months, perhaps sooner, this deal will fall apart. Even if the tribal leaders intended to live up to their obligations—a doubtful proposition—they aren’t up to the task of expelling well-armed, battle-hardened militants.

So, should the Bush administration move fast to put an end to Pakistan’s constant deal making with militants? No. Because despite appearances, Islamabadis not stabbing Washington in the back, acting irrationally, or being willfully ignorant to the threat posed by militants. Although Washington has reason to be wary of any truce blessed by Pakistani politicians and Islamist militants, there are valid reasons why Washington should support the deal making—at least for now.

First, although the specific conditions of the latest deal are not yet public, the Pakistani government appears to have learned something from its mistakes. In the past, Islamabadfailed, for instance, to recognize that a deal must only be made with tribal leaders, and instead blundered in signing arrangements directly with militant organizations. This time, rather than negotiating with militants directly, tribal elders have been the primary interlocutors. Moreover, the Pakistani government now understands it must negotiate from a position of strength. This deal comes at the end of a lengthy Army-enforced blockade of the Mehsud territories—home to notorious militant Baitullah Mehsud, the accused mastermind of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination—that forced many tribesmen from their homes. By demonstrating the punitive capacity of the state, government negotiators probably strengthened their position vis-à-vis the tribes.

Second, the deal will likely have important tactical benefits for the Pakistanis. Under its apparent terms, a cease-fire is supposed to last for the next several months. The new Pakistani government could use some breathing space after what has amounted to a tumultuous political season, complicated by partisan skirmishing, lingering questions about the future of President Pervez Musharraf, and the inexperience of many new leaders in national and provincial capitals.

Third, a period of relative calm might also give the Pakistani Army and Frontier Corps—paramilitaries assigned to the tribal areas—just a little more time to recover from an extremely taxing year of unprecedented violence and morale-bruising setbacks. Although 90 days is hardly enough time to turn these troops into effective counterinsurgency forces, a number of recent U.S.-supported initiatives to train and equip units of the Frontier Corps as well as to establish border coordinating centers along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier would benefit from even a few months of relative calm.

Finally, the cease-fire could offer a range of new development projects the chance to get started in parts of the country that have been plagued by violence. Certain small-scale projects such as school rehabilitations and traveling health clinics can move relatively quickly to help the Pakistani government (and international donors) establish stronger relations with remote tribal populations such as those in parts ofSouth Waziristan. Government access is a small but important step toward more ambitious development programming aimed at reducing poverty, popular alienation and, in time, militancy.

For Washington, there is no question that every time Pakistan cuts a deal with its militants there is a danger for the United States. The critical calculation for U.S. policymakers is whether the tactical gains from Islamabad’s deal making, combined with Washington’s desire to start out on the right foot with Pakistan’s new civilian leadership, outweigh the risks to U.S. security interests. At the moment, such a risk still appears worth running—if just barely.

Of course, there are red lines that Washingtonshouldn’t allow Islamabad to cross. Above all, Washingtoncannot let an imperfect deal get in the way of an all-too-rare shot at arresting or eliminating top al Qaeda leaders who have found safe haven in the rugged terrain of the Pakistani-Afghan frontier. Beyond that, Washington will need to judge for itself—over weeks, perhaps months—whether the deal contributes directly to an unacceptable surge in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan or whether a distracted Pakistani government is failing to enforce the terms of the accord that made it tactically beneficial at the outset.

Washington should not sit by and wait to see how this—or any—deal plays out. It should monitor developments closely and begin coordinating with Islamabad in anticipation of the deal’s collapse, focusing on support and intelligence sharing for Pakistani operations designed to inflict aggressive punitive strikes against South Waziristan’s militants and terrorists. And, just as importantly,Washington should engage Islamabad’s military and civilian leaders in a detailed discussion about the next deal. It should include clear provisions against cross-border attacks in Afghanistan. It should also require tribal leaders to put up significant collateral—in the form of real property or cash—as a demonstration of serious intent.

Because Pakistan has no purely military solution to the security problems of the tribal areas, the only thing more certain than the breakdown of this latest deal is that Islamabad will eventually negotiate again. Washington needs to recognize this reality and the fact that it doesn’t need to be in the room to have a seat at the table.

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