Commentary

A Pro-Taliban Threat

Pro-Taliban militants are currently in talks with one of Pakistan’s provincial governments to enforce Shariah, or Islamic law. Though the deal is meant to stop the spreading Islamist insurgency on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, if passed, the deal will only embolden radicals and undermine U.S. interests in Afghanistan.

The militant group Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi is currently in talks with the North-West Frontier Province, one of Pakistan’s westernmost provinces, to have Shariah formally imposed in the province’s Malakand district. Both sides are hammering out details on the release of Sufi Muhammad, one of TNSM’s founders who was arrested by Pakistani authorities. The provincial government is also close to clinching a deal with Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the tribal-based Islamic movement Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which operates as Pakistan’s version of the Taliban. Mehsud has been accused of playing a central role in a wave of deadly suicide attacks that engulfed Pakistan from November 2007 through January 2008, and was named by CIA Director Michael Hayden as the prime suspect behind the December assassination of Pakistani politician Benazir Bhutto. One senior government official engaged in the talks says, “It’s now a matter of days before we have an agreement. The talks are in a very advanced stage.”

But any deal with pro-Taliban groups is untenable, and recent events show why. Over the past year, Pakistan has been cutting ceasefire deals with various militant leaders. In August and September 2007, in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the government decided to broker peace deals with native tribes after a series of Taliban ambushes at border checkpoints. Under the deal, the tribes agreed not to shelter foreign militants and Islamabad agreed not to arrest militants without consulting tribal elders. Similar arrangements were made in North Waziristan in September 2006, and the Bajaur Agency in March 2007, both administrative units along the Afghan border. But since initiated, all of the deals have failed, precipitating a resurgence of Taliban hostilities.

The deals were initially pursued because the Pakistani army and Frontier Corps experienced disastrous losses in confrontations with insurgents. In August, 250 Pakistani troops were captured by Tehrik-e-Taliban. In December, militants blew up a checkpoint in North-West Frontier Province and kidnapped 10 policemen. And as of January there have been 36 suicide bombings directed against the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, the air force headquarters in Sargodha, and the naval war college in Lahore.

The region’s extremism is now harming U.S. interests. Just last month, dozens of oil tankers headed for NATO operations in Afghanistan were attacked in the tribal town of Landi Kotal. Last June, several trucks headed for Afghanistan were gutted by insurgents in a grenade attack. It was the third incident in a month. In addition, Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the Taliban has regrouped, gained strength, and now attacks NATO forces in Afghanistan by using Pakistan’s tribal areas as a base of operations.

…[T]he longer U.S. policy-makers overlook this region, the more the Pakistani government’s feckless strategy will destabilize the real central front in the war on terror.”

But it’s clear that peace deals have not strengthened Pakistan’s security. The glaring weakness was that they left the Taliban firmly in place because they functioned more as appeasement, rather than a concerted effort to contain radicalism. Until these deals are stopped, militants will continue to come down out of the mountains and spread into Pakistan’s major towns and cities. In some areas, relentless Taliban incursions have already led to the complete collapse of civilian and tribal administration.

Instead of toothless peace deals, a better strategy would be to isolate and contain the militancy through “clear and hold” operations. Since America has a vested interest in a secure Pakistan, and the capabilities of Pakistan’s Army must be improved substantially, Washington can assist Islamabad by raising the professionalism of Pakistan’s army by increasing the number of joint military-to-military training operations, and enhancing human-intelligence sharing in the tribal areas. Though it will be difficult for Pakistan’s Army to overcome the demoralizing defeats it’s been experiencing at the hands of insurgents, opening avenues for capturing militants is a better alternative than withdrawing the writ of the Pakistani state.

If these latest deals go through, as many South Asia analysts hope it won’t, pro-Taliban militants will embed themselves deeper into Pakistan’s social and political fabric, and further destabilize U.S.-led NATO efforts in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the longer U.S. policy-makers overlook this region, the more the Pakistani government’s feckless strategy will destabilize the real central front in the war on terror.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.