Pro-Taliban militants announced last week that they were halting peace talks with the government because “authorities were refusing to pull troops out of tribal areas near the Afghan border,” reported BBC News. As a result, there has been a marked increase in attacks in the past several days, “including the first suicide bombing for several months,” where a blast in Bannu killed at least three people. According to the BBC, “Much of the violence has been in Swat, where at least three girls’ schools have been burnt down or badly damaged in militant attacks since Sunday.” On Wednesday, a girls’ school in the Sherpalam district of Swat was completely destroyed in an arson attack. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for these attacks, and Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas has asserted that it is too early to say whether the militants involved in the peace talks were behind the recent violence. Regardless of who claims responsibility for the violence, the recent upsurge in attacks and subsequent tighter security measures by the Pakistani military indicate that both sides are trying to put pressure on each other as they attempt to negotiate.
However, how feasible are the demands of these negotiations? According to media outlets, the militants involved in the talks want authorities to pull regular troops out of tribal areas near the Afghan border, as well as in other parts of the northern areas. According to the BBC’s Ilyas Khan, “there are few regular soldiers in the tribal areas and replacing them with paramilitary ones would make little difference to the situation.” However, “to do so in other parts of the north-west, such as in Swat, could free up militants who are currently under pressure.”
The process of these now-halted negotiations could be further complicated by recent developments. Media outlets yesterday reported that the U.S. Pentagon “has rejected or deferred millions of dollars in military aid requests from Pakistan amid criticism that the Islamabad government has squandered U.S. funding and allowed Al Qaeda to rebuild a haven in its western tribal regions.” According to the LA Times, “this marks a sudden change in U.S. policy toward Pakistan, which for years has spent American military aid without having to show results in the fight against Al Qaeda and other militant groups. Even some officials in the Pentagon have acknowledged shortcomings in U.S. funding strategy.” Sen. Robert Menendez told the news agency, “The Bush administration has basically been shoveling taxpayer money to Pakistan, no questions asked, crossing its fingers and hoping that our Al Qaeda problem goes away…Our funding to Pakistan can no longer be a blank check.”
Although the Pakistani government has asserted that they will deal with the Islamist militancy issue through dialogue and development, there have been concerns that an accord will instead act as a “safe haven” for pro-Taliban or Al Qaeda forces, given the events associated with past ceasefire agreements. Although Pakistani authorities reportedly want tribal guarantees that they will stop sheltering foreign militants, I am curious how they propose to monitor these “guarantees,” given how difficult it is currently to monitor the roguish landscape of the frontier region. Moreover, the outcome of the agreement could have serious ramifications for the future of American policy towards Pakistan. Despite the raging anti-American sentiment in the country, the reality is that Pakistan receives millions of dollars in military aid each year. Could a denial of these funds potentially influence the process of these negotiations? Or will the U.S. “see the light” once they see the fruits of this accord? [Image from the BBC]