Preparing for peace in Pakistan

Criticism has been levelled against the Pakistani government's efforts to hold talks with militant groups. While concerns about the Taliban regrouping remain valid, it is in the United States’ long-term security interest not only to support the multidimensional peace plans being formulated, but also to refrain from words and actions which could jeopardize the process. The devastating air strikes that killed 11 Pakistani soldiers in the Mohmand Agency last week are the most recent case in point.

Immediately after the February general elections, the Pakistani government launched peace talks with militants in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). On 21 May, the Frontier government, led by the secular Awami National Party (ANP), signed a comprehensive peace deal with militants associated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) in NWFP. The provincial government agreed to the imposition of shari'a in NWFP's Malakand division while the local Taliban vowed to respect the writ of the state, hand foreign militants over to the government and renounce militancy.

At the federal level, talks continue between the government and the TTP and have led to prisoner exchanges and the re-orientation of army positions to facilitate the return of displaced people to the region.

While Pakistanis have welcomed the peace initiatives, the US has expressed reservations. It is critical for the US to recognise that the priority of the Pakistani government should be to first bring peace and stability within its own borders. If the new leadership is seen to place the interests of the US before its own, it will experience the same legitimacy problems that President Purvez Musharraf faced. This will undermine Pakistan's democratic transition, creating instability in the country and the region.

If negotiations fail because of militant uprisings, Pakistanis will support the use of force knowing all other channels were exhausted. This will lead to greater public ownership of the fight against extremism, something the US has called for.

Pakistan's government recognises the need for a regional strategy to consolidate the tenuous peace achieved in Pakistan. But it also believes in an incremental approach. Once it has established a working relationship with local Taliban, the Pakistani government could potentially facilitate talks between NATO, the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government.

In recent months NATO allies and the Afghan government (despite Karzai's recent threat to go after the Pakistani Taliban in FATA) have exhibited battle fatigue and seem willing to talk to moderate Taliban members. The ANP have relied on elements of the Pakhtoonwali (tribal code) to reach out to Pashtun militants and could invoke similar traditions across the border. Also, the ANP enjoy close ties with the Karzai government and last year sponsored a regional peace jirga (tribal assembly of elders) in Kabul. A similar jirga, this time around with NATO troops and moderate Taliban factions from both sides of the border could prove to be an effective step forward.

So how can the US support peace talks and also preserve its security interests in the region?

First, the US must refrain from drone attacks on Pakistani territory during peace negotiations. The recent airs strikes in Mohmand and Damadola that killed both civilians and soldiers reminded Pakistanis of a similar drone strike in January 2006, which occurred on the eve of a peace deal that was to be signed between government forces and the Taliban.

In Pakistan these attacks are seen as a direct attempt to sabotage the peace process, result in calls for revenge against the US and invite retaliatory attacks within Pakistan's settled areas. None of these outcomes bode well for peace in the region.

Second, the US should encourage the immediate resumption of high-level coordination meetings between Pakistan, NATO and Afghanistan — of which the last three were delayed due to Pakistan's political transition and internal negotiations.

At the same time, the US should urge the Pakistani government to develop joint monitoring mechanisms with Taliban peace signatories so as to ensure compliance. Consequences for violations should also be defined.

Also, extending financial support to the $4 billion peace plan being proposed by the NWFP government would bode well for Pakistan-US relations. The plan seeks to reduce militancy in the Frontier by expanding the police force, establishing regional religious peace conferences, setting up a rural fund and generating employment through the implementation of infrastructure projects.

Finally, the US should call for improved lines of communication between Pakistan's federal and provincial negotiating teams which lack a coherent strategy. The federal government has mostly excluded the provincial government from talks with militants in FATA. Thus, the provincial government cannot hold TTP members in the Frontier accountable if violations occur by their counterparts in the tribal belt.

This has led one official to observe that while the TTP have somewhat of a unified command structure across FATA and the NWFP, the government appears divided, giving the militants an edge.

This is a critical time for Pakistan as it pursues a homegrown strategy to fight extremism. Rather than undermine the approach, the US would do well to bolster it in a way that would serve its long-term security interests in both Pakistan and the region.

Mehlaqa Samdani is an advisor to the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project (PCR Project) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

Source: Foreign Policy In Focus. 13 June 2008, www.fpif.org. This article was published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at www.ips-dc.org). Copyright permission is granted for publication.