Politics of retreat
Ever since President Musharraf
announced a turn-around on his country's support to the Taliban and
Al Qaeda on September 19, 2001, Pakistan has been treading a thin
line between placating the domestic Islamist extremist constituency
and maintaining the alliance with the United States. Since the
volte face, Pakistan has arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda/Taliban
operatives, handing a majority of them over to US custody. Last
week, however, saw the military regime adopt a strategy of amnesty,
not an uncommon approach across many theatres of anti-state violence
in South Asia.
Five tribesmen accused of sheltering Al Qaeda terrorists surrendered
to the Pakistan army at a Jirga (tribal council) on April 24,
2004. The five men, led by Nek Mohammed, from the Zalikhel tribe
turned themselves in before the Jirga and reportedly pledged
loyalty to Pakistan in return for clemency. "We give amnesty to
these people in return for their pledge of brotherhood and loyalty,"
said Peshawar Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain after the
wanted men joined him in the ceremony that occurred at a Madrassa
at Shakai, South Waziristan, in the Federally Administered
Tribal Areas (FATA) region.
The military regime has reportedly agreed to halt its operations
against Nek Mohammed's tribal combatants, set free most of the 163
suspected Al Qaeda supporters who were captured during the March
2004 operations, and provide a grant of Rupees 90.1 million for
development in Waziristan. In return, Nek Mohammed and his clique
promised to refrain from attacks on Pakistani forces and the U.S.
troops in adjacent Afghanistan. Among others, the unwritten
agreement also specifies that: local tribesmen will not provide
protection to 'foreign terrorists' (Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks among
others) in the FATA; the tribesmen will surrender their heavy arms
to local authorities; tribesmen are to ensure registration of all
foreigners who would then be given amnesty and residence by the
As a result, the tribal combatants, designated as 'most wanted' only
a month ago, were seen embracing the military regime's
representatives after a deal reportedly brokered by leaders of the
Islamist grouping, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). Startled by
the bonhomie expressed at the surrender ceremony, a Western diplomat
in Islamabad said, "How can you go and fight these people last month
and embrace them this month?"
The 30-something Nek Mohammed, who was a 'commander' at the Bagram
airbase in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule, and his tribal
combatants had, in March, led a fierce resistance to an army-led
offensive on their hideouts in the remote South Waziristan area,
where senior Al Qaeda leaders are thought to have taken refuge. At
least 145 people, including 46 troops, were killed during these
operations. Some Western diplomats have claimed that Nek not only
harboured, but also supplied arms and men to Central Asian Al
Qaeda-linked terrorists for cross-border attacks on aid workers,
troops and Government targets in Afghanistan over the past 12 to 18
months. "He is, indirectly or directly, responsible for the deaths
of up to 400 people in Afghanistan," an unnamed Western diplomat
based in Pakistan told AFP.
Since the March operations, the state had been threatening military
action against the tribal fighters and had also postponed deadlines
for threatened military action on two occasions. That Nek Mohammed,
reportedly a popular figure in South Waziristan, was a crucial actor
is evident from the fact that a wide spectrum of powers within the
Pakistani state was involved in the negotiations. According to
Pakistani analyst Nasim Zehra, tribal elders, two elected
parliamentarians, the Frontier Constabulary, Army regulars, Special
Forces, the Governor, tribal agents, FATA officials and the
President were variously involved at different stages.
After the March debacle, the military regime has been attempting to
isolate the five 'most wanted' in order to neutralize the estimated
400-odd foreign fighters believed to be holed up in the region. The
objective is to either neutralize them within Pakistani territory or
flush them out into Afghanistan, where the US troops are stationed,
but this has evidently not worked. While a fair amount of
ambivalence still dominates the military regime's end game, the
state has evidently conceded its limited coercive power in the FATA.
The military regime is currently caught in the dilemma of protecting
the surviving remnants of its own creation, the Taliban, and the
need to project the image of a responsible state internationally.
The 'do more' exhortations from Washington only add to the
complexity by creating a necessity of having to deny a 'retreat' on
the state's part in the FATA deal. The continued reversal of the
long pursued 'strategic depth theory' is, however, becoming
increasingly awkward. While the March 2004 operations in FATA led to
heavy casualties for the Pakistani troops and failed to neutralize
the Al Qaeda in the region, the aftermath brings to light the perils
of the apparent demobilization of the jehadis through
conciliatory deals. However, while officially indicating that "There
has been reconciliation… achieved through mutual consultation and
negotiation", the military regime has had to reiterate at the
highest levels, as in the past, that there is no dilution in
Pakistan's commitment to eliminate terrorism from its soil.
Though the Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives would try and secure
themselves from any future offensive in the region, the
demonstration effect of a 'reconciliation' is expected to be high in
the immediate future. "The world knows who has really surrendered,"
Nek Mohammed is reported to have declared at the ceremony before
thousands of tribesmen.
While enforcing specificities of any unwritten agreement is
troublesome, the chances of the tribesmen abiding by such a deal are
very low in a region historically known to defy the writ of the
state. More significantly, the real character of relations between
the Pakistan Army and the 'rebellious' tribesmen remains murky. It
is useful to recall Nek Mohammed's observation at the
'reconciliation' ceremony: "We are loyal to Pakistan and are ready
to fight in Kashmir or anywhere else if asked by the Government.
It's a propaganda that we were terrorists."
is a Research Fellow, Institute for
Conflict Management; and, Assistant
Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution