Media coverage of Pakistan on Friday was dominated by the government’s progress in negotiations with Taliban-linked militants in the FATA region. Reuters reported, “Pakistan is close to clinching a peace pact with one of the most recalcitrant tribes in its lawless border regions to rein in a Taliban leader [Beitullah Mehsud] regarded as a cohort of Al Qaeda.” A 15-point draft of the accord was reportedly shown to media outlets, including the NY Times, which noted it called for “an end to militant activity and an exchange of prisoners in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from part of the tribal region of South Waziristan.” The news agency added,
“Even as the accord, a far-reaching draft that essentially forbids the tribes from engaging in nearly all illegal actions, was being negotiated by the government through tribal elders, the militant leader, Beitullah Mehsud, ordered his fighters to cease their activities in the tribal regions as well as the adjoining North-West Frontier Province, warning of strict punishment of any violators.”
The Washington Post underlined the significance of the development, noting it marks “the sharpest break yet with the hard-line security policy followed by U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.” Not surprisingly, both American and Afghan officials were immediately skeptical of a deal with Mehsud, who newswires yesterday framed as the “warlord accused of ordering Benazir Bhutto‘s assassination” in December 2007. The Post noted, “U.S. officials expressed concern that negotiations with perhaps the country’s most notorious Islamist commander would fail to bring a lasting solution to Pakistan’s political tumult.”
Despite this apprehension, Pakistani news sources on Friday cited statements by government and military officials hailing the progress of the talks. On Thursday, the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Interior Affairs Rehman Malik told reporters, “We will give the nation good news very soon regarding the peace initiative.” According to Dawn, Malik expressed the hope that Mehsud would not back out from the talks, asserting, “Tribal people are our brothers and the government will take all possible measures for their uplift and development of their areas.” The Daily Times cited chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who stated, “Any cessation of hostilities is a welcome step…If they cease militant activities it is a good development.” However Abbas said the military had not been informed about the development, adding, “We have not received anything from them.”
Although the AFP recently reported there has been a “five week lull” in suicide attacks, media outlets today widely covered a car bombing in Mardan in northwestern Pakistan [see below map from the AP] that killed three people, despite Mehsud’s call for militants to refrain from attacks. According to the Associated Press, “A spokesman for Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the blast but said it did not damage their commitment to peace negotiations opened by the government.” Although the government has high hopes for the outcome of these negotiations, I wonder how honest the intentions of Mehsud and his followers are – could they attempt to use the ceasefire as an opportunity to re-group and strengthen their organization? Moreover, how centralized is Mehsud’s authority if attacks still occur despite his calls otherwise? Finally, how successful do you believe these talks would be?