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The Taliban Stand to Gain Most From the New Pakistani Policy of Dialogue

May 1, 2008
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By: Tufail Ahmad*   
Introduction

On April 21, 2008, the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani released the top Islamist leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad from a prison in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), signaling the beginning of the new government's controversial policy of dialogue and accommodation with the Taliban. This has led to speculation that Pakistan is about to release hundreds of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in its custody in order to buy peace in the Taliban-controlled border region.

  


Sufi Muhammad is the founder of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TSNM, or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Shari'a). He was arrested in 2002 while returning from the fighting in Afghanistan, on charges of sending thousands of jihadists across the border to fight against U.S. forces after 9/11. During his detention, his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah led the banned outfit, and his fighters came to occupy most of the Swat district in the NWFP from July through November 2007, before being repelled by the Pakistani military. 

The Taliban-controlled region covers some parts of the North West Frontier Province such as Swat and Malakand districts, where Sufi Muhammad's TSNM has been campaigning for the implementation of shari'a, and also the tribal districts bordered by Afghanistan and NWFP on two sides. Pakistan has nominal presence in the tribal districts, or Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs), which do not come under the ambit of the Pakistani constitution – thus giving the Taliban autonomy of sorts.
  
After Sufi Muhammad's release following a deal between the Taliban and the governments of Pakistan and the NWFP, where the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party recently came to power, negotiations have been underway for establishing peace in the region. The talks are taking place at several levels, sometimes with a single Taliban group on a specific issue but mostly with the tribal elders acting for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Movement of Pakistani Taliban) – an umbrella organization of local jihadist groups, led by Baitullah Mehsud.
   
The talks are focused on the following interrelated areas:
  
1. The release of Sufi Muhammad  
2. The release of kidnapped Pakistani Ambassador to Afghanistan Tariq Azizuddin  
3. Legal cases against Red Mosque cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz  
4. Baitullah Mehsud's control of tribal districts.
  
Before Gilani took over as prime minister, Pakistan was rocked by a series of bomb blasts and suicide bombings, over a period of several years. Leaders of his Pakistan People's Party and key coalition partner Pakistan Muslim League (N) had vowed to adopt a policy of reconciliation with the Taliban to eliminate violence from Pakistan – in a move opposed to President Pervez Musharraf's policy of fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in cooperation with the West. 
  
On March 29, 2008, the prime minister announced a policy of reconciliation with the Taliban during an address to the National Assembly, the lower house of Pakistani parliament. He stated: ''Terrorism and extremism have put our national security in danger. This is our serious problem. Our first priority, therefore, will be the restoration of law and order in the country and total elimination of terrorism…. My appeal to all those who are on the path of violence is to reject the way of violence and join us on this journey of democracy. We are ready to talk to all those who are willing to reject weapons and adopt the path of peace.''(1) 
   
The Pakistani government's policy of dialogue with the Taliban is aimed ending the attacks and suicide bombings that nearly destabilized Pakistan. A policy of reconciliation also suits both sides for now, as they hold each other's hundreds of captives. There is a concern, however, that this policy, instead of eliminating extremism, may strengthen the Taliban.
          
The Release of Sufi Muhammad - First Mini-Shari'a State Inside Pakistan In Exchange For Releasing Militants
Sufi Muhammad was freed following a deal with the government, the details of which appeared in bits and pieces in the media. According to NWFP senior minister Raheem Dad Khan, the agreement with the outlawed TSNM will result in positive developments for the province. The minister noted two key points: first, Sufi Muhammad has agreed not to pursue a path of violence; and second, it is possible for the NWFP government to implement shari'a in Malakand and Swat region, a long-standing demand of the TSNM.(2)
  
The minister confirmed that as part of the deal, the NWFP government is preparing a shari'a package for the Malakand region. Justifying that there was nothing wrong in acceding to Sufi Muhammad's demand for implementing shari'a, Khan went on to say: ''We want to implement the Islamic system not in a limited area [Malakand] but in the entire country.''(3)
  
According to another report, Raheem Dad Khan said that on the advice of the provincial government, the government of Pakistan withdrew all the cases registered against Sufi Muhammad for his role in jihad in Afghanistan after 9/11. The federal government also dropped the cases against 40 of his fighters filed for their role in the Swat district, ensuring their release from jails.(4)
  
Last year when the fighters of Sufi Muhammad's son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah captured most of the Swat district, the government had to send troops to end their four-month occupation. However, the government also acceded to their key demand for implementation of shari'a in the district. The TSNM retained some control and later the then provincial government prepared a development package, the key feature of which was ''the real implementation of a shari'a system of justice.''(5)
  
It has been confirmed by the NWFP Law Minister Arshad Abdullah that an updated shari'a package for both the districts of Malakand and Swat is under the consideration of the provincial government and will be sent to President Musharraf for his approval. (6)
  
It is evident that the government is agreeing to a shari'a system of administration and justice for one region of the state, which will be different from the one prevalent in the rest of the NWFP. Though the specific details of the package are not known, it appears that the package will cover a region, roughly one-third of the province. This could also be the beginning of a Taliban mini-state within the North West Frontier Province.
  
This has raised concerns as to whether the government will be able to hold Sufi Muhammad, Maulana Fazlullah and their fighters to account and if yes, then for how long. The TSNM was controlled by Maulana Fazlullah in the absence of his father-in-law Sufi Muhammad over the past six years, during which fighters from Taliban and Al Qaeda groups also joined. It remains to be seen how long Maulana Fazlullah will keep a low profile. On the day Sufi Muhammad was released, Maulana Fazlullah announced on his pirate FM radio that his talks to establish peace in the region have failed. (7)
  
Head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Senator Maulana Sami ul-Haq noted that the previous government in the province led by Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the Alliance of Religious Parties, had turned down such a request. He said that the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, a key constituent of the religious coalition, would often ask: Who will keep Sufi Muhammad under control in case he was released? (8)
  
The deal with the outlawed TSNM has attained legitimacy, permitting it also to work for implementation of shari'a through peaceful means.(9)
 
The Release of Kidnapped Pakistani Ambassador to Afghanistan – In Exchange for Freeing Islamist Leaders 
On February 11, 2008, Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan Tariq Azizuddin went missing, along with his guard and driver, in the tribal district of Khyber Agency while travelling from Peshawar to Kabul. He is the most high-profile captive taken by the Taliban. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi has denied any link between efforts to secure the release of Tariq Azizuddin and those to obtain the release of Sufi Muhammad.(10)
  
The Taliban have also sought to deny any role in the kidnapping of the diplomat. However, the facts prove otherwise. It was reported that the Pakistani government is engaged in negotiations with the kidnappers through the mediation of Sufi Muhammad. The Urdu newspaper Roznama Khabrain reported that during the talks, the Taliban put forward many demands, including one for the release of several militants.(11)
   
On April 19, 2008, a video confirming that Tariq Azizuddin was in Taliban custody was aired on television channels. After the release of the video, a spokesman of the Foreign Office in Islamabad confirmed that the government ''is using all possible sources to secure his release, and talks are ongoing.''(12)
  
Against this backdrop, the diplomat may be released any time now. The Pakistani government has not disclosed the names, ranks, and affiliation of militants whose release is being bartered for the freedom of Tariq Azizuddin and for peace in the Taliban-controlled region on the border with Afghanistan.
  
Significantly, Azizuddin went missing within a few days of the capture of Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah in a military operation in Pakistan. A day after the kidnapping, the website of Pakistan's popular GEO Television Network quoted an unnamed Arab journalist based in Islamabad as saying that in exchange for freeing the Azizuddin, the Taliban were seeking the release of Mansoor Dadullah, brother of slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.(13)

Legal Cases against Red Mosque Cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz
The talks were always focused on specific issues, for example, the release of diplomat Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistani soldiers held by the Taliban, or Islamist leaders in Pakistani jails. What expanded the scope of these talks was the victory of secular political parties in the February elections. The victorious parties, which blamed the violence in Pakistan on President Musharraf's policy of fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in cooperation with the West, had advocated a policy of reconciliation with extremists. Since coming to power, these parties initiated a policy of dialogue with all Taliban groups.
  
A day before the release of Sufi Muhammad, reports appeared in the media saying that Tariq Azizuddin's kidnappers had demanded the release of 12 top Islamist leaders, including Maulana Abdul Aziz, the cleric arrested while fleeing in a burqa during the 2007 military operation on his Red Mosque and the Jamia Hafsa madrassa in Islamadab; Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah; Sufi Muhammad; five fighters of the Afghan Taliban; and others. According to a report, most of the militants proposed for release by the Taliban in exchange for their freeing of Tariq Azizuddin are supporters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud.(14)
  
Currently, there is speculation over when Azizuddin will be freed and whether or not the Pakistani government will release Mansoor Dadullah and Maulana Abdul Aziz in exchange, and whether the timing of the two militants' release will be modulated in a way to distract the public attention from the exchanged deal. There are indications, however, that the government is moving in the direction of releasing Maulana Abdul Aziz.
  
Recently, the High Court in Islamabad granted bail to Maulana Abdul Aziz in four cases. With this, the radical cleric, with powerful connections inside the Pakistani military, has now been granted bail in 19 of the 27 cases filed against him. His release is expected as early as in May 2008, when the court will hear the next batch of his bail applications.(15)

Baitullah Mehsud's Control of Tribal Districts and Pakistani Taliban
The Gilani government has announced its plan to abolish the 1901 law so that these tribal districts could be integrated into Pakistan, possibly as a fifth province. While the Pakistani Taliban, who virtually control the region, welcomed the decision, they have made two demands: Pakistan must distance itself from the U.S. war on terror, and a system of shari'a must be implemented in the region.(16) 
  
The government is engaged in talks with a delegation of tribal elders nominated by Baitullah Mehsud. As a precondition for the talks, and at the time of Sufi Muhammad's release, Baitullah Mehsud asked his fighters not to engage in provocative actions that could mar peace in the FATAs as well as in parts of the North West Frontier Province.(17)
  
The nature of the talks between the government and Baitullah Mehsud's representatives came to light in a 15-point draft agreement. Some of its points included:(18)
  
a) The Political Administration and the Mehsud tribe will jointly monitor and report the likelihood of the presence of training camps for militants and of the preparation of terror attacks.
  
b) If the Mehsud tribe fails to eliminate suspicions of militant training in the area, the government will have the right to take action as per tribal customs and traditions, and the Frontier Crimes Regulation.
  
c) The exchange of prisoners of both sides will take place after the signing of this agreement. The government will release all prisoners from the Mehsud tribe.
  
d) Government troops will begin phased withdrawal from the region of Mehsud tribe after the agreement is signed.
  
It appears from the draft agreement that the talks are focused on Baitullah Mehsud's tribe – i.e. in the tribal districts of South and North Waziristan. It is also clear that the militants loyal to Baitullah Mehsud have wider control across the region than some of the Taliban groups in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The overall objective of the talks is to restore peace across the region, possibly through shared control as evident from the demand to jointly monitor the likely presence of terror camps in the region.
  
The negotiations are seen as a bargaining process by the Taliban. During the talks the Taliban delegation sought the release 250 militants from Pakistani jails in exchange for about 80-100 government officials and soldiers.(19)
  
It appear that the government, indeed, is making concessions: it was reported that it gave cash compensation worth more than 200 million Pakistani rupees to over 500 individuals for the Taliban fighters killed or wounded during the military operation begun by Pakistani troops in Waziristan in 2004. According to a report, about 150 senior Taliban commanders in Waziristan received huge undisclosed sums.(20)
  
By the last week of April, there was a deadlock in the talks over the issue of withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the region, leading to the suspension of the negotiations by Taliban. According to a report, the delegation of tribal elders returned from the talks, saying that the government was not agreeing to the troops' withdrawal.(21)
  
The Taliban are also demanding that they should be free to launch attacks across the border against U.S. and NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan – a demand that will transform the tribal districts into a military training base for the jihadist fighters, and all the more so if the Pakistani troops were to return to barracks.(22)
  
The suspension of the talks has focused on the nature of the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the region, also highlighting in the process the Taliban ambition to control the region without the presence of Pakistani troops. However, it is not clear whether the Taliban are demanding total withdrawal of the troops, or whether they will allow some kind of Pakistani military presence. For now, NWFP Chief Minister (executive head) Ameer Haidar Hoti has said that the demand for the withdrawal of troops is not correct, pleading for ''flexibility on the part of the Taliban in order to establish peace.''(23)
  
Even if the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan reached a deal with the government, there are many militant groups that act as per their own agenda. For example, a group called Lashkar-e-Islam recently asserted its control in the tribal district of Khyber Agency, vowing to spread Islam across the world.(24) 
  
Similarly, in the tribal district of Mohmand Agency the local Emir of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has established control, recently issuing an agenda for the implementation of the Islamic shari'a .(25)
  
And in late April, a significant development took place in the town of Darra Adam Khel in the NWFP, indicating the type of change that is coming in as a result of the government's policy of dialogue with the Taliban. As soon as the Pakistani troops withdrew from this area, Taliban fighters came rushing in. They parked their vehicles in front of a local politician's house, leaving a message that he should guard them until they complete setting up their control centers. The Peshawar-based Urdu-language newspaper Roznama Mashriq reported: ''The tribal elders are describing this new development to be the result of the government's new policy of establishing peace in these regions.''(26)
  
It appears though that the Pakistani government has succeeded in halting suicide bombings, possibly as a result of the talks with the Taliban groups. It is also evident that the Taliban have the upper hand, pursuing their own agenda and achieving success in a key demand for – at an early stage in the talks – a mini-shari'a state within Pakistan.

* Tufail Ahmad is the director of MEMRI's Urdu-Pashtu Media Project.

Endnotes:
[1] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), March 30, 2008.

[2] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 23, 2008.

[3] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 23, 2008.

[4] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), March 23, 2008.

[5] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), March 27, 2008.

[6] Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), March 25, 2008.

[7] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), March 22, 2008.

[8] Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), April 23, 2008.

[9] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), April 23, 2008.

[10] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), March 23, 2008.

[11] Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), April 24, 2008.

[12] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), April 20, 2008.

[13] Geo TV (www.geo.tv/urdu.asp ), accessed February 12, 2008.

[14] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), February 21, 2008.

[15] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 29, 2008.

[16] Roznama Jang (Pakistan), March 31, 2008.

[17] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 24, 2008.

[18] Roznama Ausaf (London), April 24, 2008.

[19] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 28, 2008.

[20] Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), April 30, 2008.

[21] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 29, 2008.

[22] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 28, 2008.

[23] Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), April 30, 2008.

[24] Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), April 18, 2008.

[25] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 17, 2008.

[26] Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 23, 2008.


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