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PAKISTAN: Elected Gov&#39t Unable to Deal With Taliban Groups

Muddassir Rizvi

ISLAMABAD, May 12 2008 (IPS) - Allah Hussain Mahsud has little hope in Pakistan&#39s newly elected government&#39s ability to negotiate with the ragtag Taliban militia and end militancy in the country&#39s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

A refugee from militancy-stricken Waziristan, Hussain does not even believe that talks are possible with the militant groups that have been fighting the Pakistan military in the tribal regions for more than four years.

Having organised themselves as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistan Taliban Movement under the leadership of Baitullah Mahsud, the militants have been giving the army a tough time and resisting its attempts to curtail their activity in the areas bordering Afghanistan.

"Who will the government talk to? There is no determined leadership of these groups. There is no established authority to enforce any peace deal," says the 22-year-old tribal, who looks jittery as he talks of rockets and bombs pounding the mountains near his village that compelled his family to leave their ancestral home only to settle in a makeshift shack on the outskirts of Islamabad.

"Rockets fell on our village when the army targetted local fighters hiding in mountains from the air using F-7 aircraft and helicopter gunships," recalls Hussain who has come from a small village in Sararogha sub-district, 50 km from the town of Jandola in the South Waziristan Agency.

"Then there are foreigners, particularly Uzbeks, who have multiplied over the past couple of years. They are merciless people. They don&#39t follow anybody," says Hussain whose uncle was killed by the Uzbeks for refusing to give them refuge.

Hussain is among thousands of people who have been displaced by militancy in Pakistan&#39s tribal regions since 2004 and are compelled to live in difficult economic conditions away from their homes at a time when the country is hit by an unprecedented inflation and unemployment.

"I and my father make a few thousand rupees (a couple of hundred dollars) through daily wage work that is insufficient to pay for our needs. My little brothers and sisters can&#39t even go to school," says the young tribal who is married and has an infant son.

He wants to go back to his home but does not think it will be possible any time soon. Whatever little hope he had is now clouded by the breakdown of government talks with the TTP this past week, which severed its contacts with the tribal Jirga that the government had formed for negotiations.

"There can be no talks unless the government withdraws the military from all tribal regions and Swat," reported newspapers quoting a Taliban spokesperson, days after the Taliban called off the ceasefire that they announced at the end of March after the new government offered talks to all militant groups.

Two days later, suicide bombings ripped through a police post in Bannu, a town bordering Waziristan, in an apparent message by Taliban that they have the ability to create insecurity anywhere, anytime.

But the government cannot simply withdraw troops from Waziristan which has been declared as the hotbed of Islamic militancy. "Troop withdrawal from the tribal areas is unthinkable. It is just too hard a precondition for talks by the Taliban to accept," an official of Pakistan&#39s home ministry says.

In 2007, Pakistan saw the killing of more than 750 people, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in 56 suicide attacks, most of which were blamed by Pakistan&#39s intelligence agencies on Baitullah Mahsud-led Taliban Movement.

Mahsud has been accused of masterminding Bhutto&#39s assassination and holding Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, hostage for over a month. They have yet to release the ambassador even after the Pakistan government freed one of their respected leaders, Sufi Mohammad.

Many analysts believe that the new government&#39s expectation of quickly addressing the spreading militancy by engaging with Taliban was based on misplaced assumptions. "They want to establish a system based on their own brand of Islam and expand their influence to as many areas as possible," says Sarwar Bari, a rights activist based in Islamabad.

Newspaper editorials suggest that the Taliban are showing an inflexible attitude as the political leadership looks apologetic in its approach to deal with them. They argue that the military operation might have been politically incorrect and might not have achieved the required objectives, but the military presence in tribal areas was a necessity post 9/11.

"The TTP is aggressive because it sees Pakistan negotiating from a position of weakness. This calls for a change of tactics and strategy on the part of the Pakistan army and government," comments Daily Times in its editorial on May 5, 2008.

Pakistan’s Taliban have been active not just in tribal areas but also in many urban centres of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) bordering Afghanistan. Just this weekend, Taliban have issued a decree for people in tribal areas to grow a beard within two months. Earlier, they sent a letter to all barber shops in a posh locality of Peshawar to stop shaving beards as, according to them, it is against the teaching of Islam.

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