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POLITICS-PAKISTAN: Violence Clouds Peace Prospects

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, May 27 2008 (IPS) - Within a day of a controversial peace deal signed between the provincial government in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Islamic fighters in Swat, a journalist was shot dead in neighbouring Bajaur Agency ruled directly by the Pakistan government last week.

Journalists in Peshawar, capital of the NWFP, protesting the gunning down of Mohammad Ibrahim, on May 23, demanded more security for the media which has been caught in the cross-fire between security forces and pro-Taliban militants. The reporter for the Urdu-language Daily Express and TV channel was the seventh journalist to be killed in the tribal area in the last three years. Many others have left because of security concerns.

Bajaur, one of the seven agencies in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), has been embroiled in violence since 2002 when remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan infiltrated the lawless tribal area to set up sanctuaries.

U.S. drone aircraft are reported to have fired two missiles at a house and compound in Damadola village, Bajaur Agency, 7 km from the border, on May 14.

Ruling party politicians were quick to condemn the U.S. attack. It could “sabotage our peace efforts in Swat and Mardan,” laments ruling Awami National Party (ANP) president, Asfandyar Wali Khan. The ANP leads a coalition government with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the NWFP.

Khan describes the attack as “unwarranted”. This was the second U.S. assault on Damadola. On Oct. 31, 2006, U.S. drones attacked a seminary killing over 50 people.

There was swift retaliatory reaction to the U.S. assaults both times. In 2006, a week after the seminary bombing, suicide bombers targeted an army training centre, killing 42 recruits. Islamic fighters launched a suicide attack on an army-run bakery in Mardan, NWFP, on May 17, killing 13 people, including 5 army men.

ANP leader Khan has urged the government in Islamabad to prevail on the U.S. to refrain from unauthorised military action on Pakistan territory.

Khan who has unveiled a 4-billion-dollar peace plan for the NWFP has just returned from touring the U.S., Sweden and other countries to raise funds. But the plan, he admits, is a non-starter unless the U.S. stops missile attacks on Pakistan, and the Pakistan Army withdraws from the FATA.

Pakistan’s pro-Taliban leader, Baitullah Mahsud, has also called for the army to go back to the barracks. Mahsud who is chief of the Tehreek Taliban (an umbrella organisation of militants) has not endorsed the ANP’s peace plan.

There was a month-long lull in militancy in the frontier areas after the installation of a new government following the February 2008 polls that brought the ANP-led government to power in the NWFP. That ended on Apr. 25 when a police station in Mardan was bombed, killing three people and injuring 25 others. Mahsud’s group claimed responsibility. Mahsud has been accused of masterminding the bold assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in the run-up to the elections.

The United States, which sees Pakistan as a front-line state in its so-called ‘war on terror’ has closely followed events in Pakistan. “Its drone attack on Damadola is a clear message to the elected government that it can still strike inside Pakistan according to its own sweet will,” observes Rahimullah Yusufzai, a well-known journalist in an interview on the privately-run Geo TV channel.

In recent weeks, deep differences between the PPP and PML-N led by ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif have slowed the pace of efforts by the Pakistan’s federal government to tackle militancy through talks, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Kamran Arif told IPS.

Attention has shifted exclusively to a single issue: the reinstatement of 60 judges of Pakistan’s superior courts who were sacked by President Parvez Musharraf on Nov. 3, 2007. The PML-N has pulled out of the federal government in the wake of a breakdown in negotiations with the ruling PPP on the issue.

PML-N senator Iqbal Zafar Jhagra told IPS that once the judges’ issue was settled “we would focus on the issue of war on terrorism.”

According to him, the United States has given about 13 billion dollars to Musharraf since the launch of its ‘war on terror’ in the wake of the World Trade Centre bombings in September 2001. “The money should have been spent on the development of the areas where the Taliban have found sanctuaries,” he points out.

Researcher Ashraf Ali at the University of Peshawar who is an authority on the Taliban, says it would like the government to talk directly to the Islamic fighters and not on the behest of the Pakistan Army or the United States.

As long as the army stays in FATA the situation regarding militancy will not improve, he believes.

Meanwhile, on May 21, after several rounds of negotiations the NWFP government brokered a peace deal in Swat and Malakand, NWFP, with the radical Mullah Fazlullah’s pro-Taliban faction. The federal government had signed a similar peace deal with Fazlullah in May 2007 but the Taliban promptly disobeyed the terms of the deal.

Researcher Ali is not hopeful of the new agreement’s success. Efforts to engage the Taliban in peace talks have led nowhere, he observes. Also, “the federal government isn’t involved. The U.S. is also opposed to the peace deal,” he comments.

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