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Pakistan’s Peace Deals with Islamic militants: Lull before the Storm

Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • May 28, 2008

    The new ANP-led provincial government in NWFP signed a peace deal with the Islamic militants of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) led by Maulana Fazlullah, on May 21, 2008. The deal is the most significant initiative taken by the provincial government to end endemic violence that has engulfed the scenic Swat valley since last year and follows another peace deal with Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the father in law of Fazlullah and the founder of TNSM on April 20. Sufi Mohammad had founded TNSM after leaving Jamaat-e-Islami in 1992. He also led a 10,000 strong force to fight alongside the Taliban, when US troops invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. Many of his followers died in the misadventure and he was arrested on his return to Pakistan. The leadership of TNSM consequently passed on to his son-in-law Fazlullah, who used an illegal FM radio station to give his sermons and to propagate his ideology. Over the years, he assumed an even more hard line stance and after the military operations in Lal Masjid in Islamabad, he asked his followers to prepare for Jihad against the military government. In October 2007, after a few altercations with the security forces, his followers virtually took over the entire Swat Valley. The security forces personnel surrendered with their weapons and towns were taken over by the armed cadres of TNSM. It took the Pakistan Army more than a month to establish some semblance of control over the region. Sufi Mohammad meanwhile continued to languish in jail and years of incarceration mellowed him down. As Sufi Mohammad began showing his willingness to negotiate a settlement, Fazlullah distanced himself from his erstwhile mentor and when Sufi Mohammad negotiated the deal with the government, the hard line faction led by Fazlullah refused to abide by it.

    In the agreement with Sufi Mohammad, the government accepted the right of every Muslim to ‘peacefully’ work for the enforcement of Shariat. TNSM dissociated itself from the elements attacking the security forces and a fatwa was issued against attacks on security personnel as it was ruled to be against Islamic teachings. It also renewed its pledge to support the state institutions and enable the state to restore its writ in the region. The deal led to Sufi Mohammad’s release after spending more than six and a half years in prison, although the government claimed that Sufi Mohammad was released unconditionally and the two sides came to an agreement subsequently. Immediately after the accord was signed, Swat valley was filled with black turbaned supporters of Sufi Mohammad, who was carried in a huge procession to Swat. This put pressure on Fazlullah to come to the negotiating table and he initially agreed for a ceasefire and finally accepted the peace deal.

    In the peace deal signed with Fazlullah on May 21, the militants agreed that they would accept and honour the writ of the federal and provincial government and would not malign the religion of other citizens. They assured that government personnel and properties will not be attacked, vaccinations will not be opposed and all foreign militants will be handed over to the government. They also agreed to a ban on display of illegal weapons and FM broadcasts without due permission from the government and to cooperate with the government to investigate murder, robbery and other crimes. They consented to dismantling the training facilities for suicide bombers as well as explosives manufacturing facilities. The government on its part agreed to implement Shariat in the entire erstwhile Malakand Division in letter and spirit, compensate all victims for the damages to life and property and to review all cases against militants in prison. It agreed that the Army would be sent back to the barracks gradually and an Islamic University would be set up at TNSM headquarters to be run jointly by the government and TNSM. It also agreed to take action against oppressors, bribe-takers, adulterers, thieves, dacoits and kidnappers in order to rid society of such elements. Finally an 11-member joint committee was set up to ensure the implementation of the deal.

    There have also been reports that a ceasefire had been negotiated with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organisation of all Islamic militants in Pakistan including TNSM. Mehsud has been fighting the Pakistani Army and other security agencies in Waziristan for the past few years and is considered the most potent threat by the US. In the past few days the Army has withdrawn from its positions in Waziristan, though its spokesman has claimed that this was merely redeployment. However, the fact that Mehsud held a press conference on May 24 and the visiting journalists did not find a single security forces personnel in the region confirms that the troops have been withdrawn as a prelude to the deal. During the press conference he showed his keenness for a deal with the Pakistani government but vowed to continue waging jihad against the Americans in Afghanistan.

    It is important that these deals should not go the same way as the previous Waziristan deal, which gave the militants a free hand in their areas and helped them to consolidate their position. Prima facie, the case appears to be similar but there is a significant difference. Unlike the Army in Waziristan, the current ANP-led government in NWFP does have considerable popular support and has an organisation to monitor the activities of the extremists at ground level. In fact both the Western powers and the militants had realised it well before the elections that the only political force capable of tackling terrorism in the Pakhtoon belt was ANP. Accordingly, during the run-up to the elections, ANP rallies were targeted by suicide terrorists and ANP leaders continued to be targeted even in the immediate aftermath of the elections. However, after the initial spurt, terrorist activities in the settled areas of NWFP have come down drastically. This gives credence to the view that the ANP could usher in peace back to the troubled region, though this requires that it should get the requisite autonomy and freedom to pursue its agenda. Education has a major role to play in weaning people away from the fundamentalist bandwagon. The ANP may have to focus on the Pakhtoon identity of the province to dilute its Islamic identity, which has over the years emerged as the citadel of radical Islam.

    The fact that Mehsud has vowed to continued attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan has caused serious discomfiture in the United States over the peace deals. The missile attack by a US Predator drone on a house at Damadola in Bajour Agency, which resulted in the death of over a dozen people and the destruction of a house and an adjacent mosque, was a clear manifestation of US discomfiture. It did provide a set back but did not completely derail the peace process as had happened after a similar attack in the same region in October 2007. The US perception is that the deals will create safe havens for militants in the region, which could provide sanctuary to al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Moreover, a large number of militants will move from the region to Afghanistan to take on the coalition forces. Besides, the militants will retain the capacity to interfere with the supplies for coalition forces passing through the region. NATO and the Pentagon have accordingly been voicing serious concerns about the deals. Even Condoleeza Rice stated that while the US respected the Pakistan government’s attempts at a deal, the US does have genuine concerns as “they’ve been down this road before. There was an agreement in the tribal areas. It was violated by the radicals.” The US is, therefore, putting a lot of pressure on Islamabad not to negotiate with militants especially Mehsud. It does not have serious reservations about deals with militants in Swat Valley, but the militants in Swat have threatened to pull out from the peace deal if the talks between the government and the militants in Waziristan fail. This really puts both the governments in Islamabad and Peshawar in a precarious position.

    The deals with Sufi Mohammad and Fazlullah and the one being negotiated with Baitullah Mehsud do not provide lasting solutions to militancy, but merely an interregnum during which all sides will attempt to consolidate their positions. In the meantime, it may provide a fillip to violence in Afghanistan. The ANP is keen on the deals because peace in the region will allow them to pursue their development agenda, with which they eventually hope to wean the populace of the region to their secular nationalistic point of view. The US, clearly unhappy with the deal, is unlikely to stop targeting militant leadership in the region as and when the intelligence is available. The militants can easily use one of these strikes to walk out of the deal after having consolidated their position.