ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan’s new government is negotiating a peace deal with militants in the Taliban-controlled Waziristan region, the rugged mountainous area that’s thought to be Osama bin Laden’s refuge.
The move reflects the changing approach of America’s longtime ally in the war on terror, and news of the talks set off alarm bells in Washington Wednesday.
“We are concerned about it, and what we encourage them to do is to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. “We have been concerned about these types of approaches because we don’t think that they work.”
However, details emerged Wednesday of talks under way between the Pakistani government and leaders of the dominant Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan on an agreement in which the Pakistani army would pull out of the area and the government would release some militants from custody.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that U.S. military commanders with troops on the Afghan border are especially upset by the negotiations, fearing that a truce would allow Islamic militants to step up attacks on U.S.-led NATO and Afghan government troops in Afghanistan.
The military “is really ticked off,” said the State Department official, who added that U.S. entreaties to the Pakistani military to keep the heat on Islamic extremists “seems to be falling on deaf ears.”
South Waziristan is the most volatile part of Pakistan’s autonomous tribal belt, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which runs along the country’s border with Afghanistan.
U.S. officials believe that the FATA, and South Waziristan in particular, are a base for the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Bush administration was critical of a previous peace accord in South Waziristan, which was forged three years ago, seeing it as giving an opportunity for the militants to regroup. That accord, and a similar one in North Waziristan in 2006, were followed by increased attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief spokesman of the Pakistan army, said that the military had briefed the incoming government on the situation in South Waziristan as “the No. 1” issue.
“It is the government that has carried out the negotiations with the tribals,” Abbas said. “The terms are completely up to the tribal elders and the government.”
Pakistan’s army has as many as 30,000 troops in South Waziristan, Abbas said. Major hostilities broke out between the army and militants there in late January, but an uneasy unofficial cease-fire has been observed since February.
The Pakistani government has made no announcement about the peace deal, but according to Pakistani officials, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, this agreement will be with tribal leaders, not with the militants.