On Thursday, Pakistani police arrested two suspects in the suicide attack that killed former PM Benazir Bhutto
on December 27th. According to the Associated Press
, “Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema
said the two men were arrested in Rawalpindi… but gave no further details.” Cheema added that he expected the two to appear in “anti-terrorism court” Friday but declined to say whether the two were figures in the assassination. The arrests follow those of two more suspects last month, including a 15 year old who was allegedly part of a suicide squad sent to kill Bhutto, [see CHUP post for January 19]. Details surrounding the arrests are vague and conspiracy theories over who perpetrated the attack are still abound, although U.S. and Pakistani officials assert the assassination was masterminded by Beitullah Mehsud
, the elusive leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban
, the umbrella organization of Taliban-linked militants that have been battling Pakistani security forces near the Afghan border.
Yesterday, news sources reported that the Tehreek-e-Taliban declared an indefinite ceasefire in this fighting, although the Pakistani military spokesman denied knowledge of such a development, [see yesterday’s post for more information]. Today, however, media outlets did note that the government was preparing for peace talks with the militants
. According to Pakistan’s The News
, the development will likely be “greeted with skepticism by the United States and Pakistan’s other Western allies, who believe Islamic militants exploited a failed truce last year to expand their reach into this turbulent, nuclear-armed country.” The Daily Times
reported that the military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, warned that this declaration of a ceasefire by militants “could be a move to regroup for another attack
.”Abbas’s assessment was echoed by a piece in the Christian Science Monitor
today, which called the development “curious,” adding it further highlighted “the confusion in Pakistan’s tribal areas.” According to the Monitor, “It appears that the militants in the tribal belt are maneuvering for time and space. Taliban leader Mullah Omar has recently been trying to turn the Taliban’s attentions toward Afghanistan, not Pakistan. This cease-fire claim could represent an effort to call off Pakistan operations so that the Taliban can refocus and regroup
.” Ahmed Rashid,
the author of Taliban
[a book, which if you haven’t already read, you really should] told the news outlet, “In the past, these cease-fires have resulted in militants being able to bide more time, build up resources, and then make much more effective attacks.” Any solution, Rashid noted, must include restoring moderate tribal chiefs to power
, many of whom have fled to Peshawar
amid the escalating violence and growing Taliban presence. If these leaders don’t return, he said, “you are leaving the region in the hands of these militants.” The military must also integrate FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] into Pakistan in order to reduce the current power vacuum that has allowed to region to be susceptible to extremist influence.
In the continuing effort to blunt the influence of these militant groups, the U.S. confirmed today that they are “helping the Pakistanis double the size of their elite commando force,” reported the International Herald Tribune Thursday. A senior Department of Defense official, Mike Vickers, told the news agency that the U.S. military presence in the country is fewer than 100 people and is focused on “targeted training.” He stated, “It’s been ongoing for a while. They’re expanding their capability substantially; they’re essentially doubling their force. So we’re helping them with that expansion and trying to improve their capabilities at the same time. There’s also some aviation training. It’s been ongoing for several years.” The IHT added, “The number of U.S. forces in Pakistan is a sensitive issue. Many Pakistanis openly support or sympathize with Al Qaeda, the Taliban or other militant groups and would view a sizable American presence in their country as an unwelcome intrusion.”
Given the recent reported developments related to U.S. training and aid to Pakistan, I would be curious to know how Pakistanis in the FATA react to even this reportedly small amount of U.S. presence, given the anti-American sentiment on the ground. In an area plagued by violence, could this influence be depicted in a positive light? Could the Pakistani military do more to aid perceptions in that regard?
Note: the Council on Foreign Relations released an interesting interview with Ashley Tellis on the security situation in Pakistan, as well as a good backgrounder on the various militant groups in the country, [thanks Jessica!]. Image courtesy of the AFP.