PESHAWAR, Pakistan – The secular party that won last week’s elections in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province plans to open peace talks with al-Qaida-allied Islamic insurgents, a drastic departure from the military crackdowns that the national army has pursued with U.S. backing for the last five years.
The Awami National Party says army offensives in the tribal region abutting the province have killed, maimed and displaced untold numbers of civilians, driven recruits into the arms of the radicals and helped fuel a surge in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks across the country.
“The war against terror has failed. So there should be no war,” said Haji Mohammad Adeel, one of the party’s most senior leaders. “The only solution is peace. We will do it with negotiations, not with bombs, not with guns, not with airstrikes.”
To convince militants to quit the insurgency and to weaken the popular support that allows al-Qaida to maintain a sanctuary in the region, the party pledges to build clinics, schools, roads and other infrastructure for the area’s 3 million desperately poor people.
The party’s plan and the support it’s drawn from other political parties may help explain why the White House continues to advocate a key role for Pakistan’s much-reviled president, Pervez Musharraf, despite the defeat of his political allies in the elections Feb. 18.
The Bush administration has lauded the former army general as an “indispensable ally” in the fight against Islamic extremism for deploying some 85,000 troops in the tribal areas. As president, Musharraf also holds administrative authority over the region.
The Bush administration distrusts any peace deals after several deeply flawed accords reached under Musharraf collapsed, although not before freeing up militants to join the guerrilla war in Afghanistan.
“It should not automatically be equated with appeasement … but the ANP has come up with no specifics, and its approach has not been tested,” said a Western diplomat who asked to remain anonymous, citing the issue’s sensitivity.
The party’s plans face an array of other potential opponents: the army, which could lose U.S. military aid if peace prevails; Pakistani intelligence services and Islamic parties that patronize the radicals for political purposes; and smugglers and drug barons, who’ve used the lawless region for years to transport their lucre to and from Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida and the most uncompromising militant groups are likely to intensify terrorist strikes to forestall any possibility of being forced out of their sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies’ remote mountains and valleys.
The Awami National Party already has been targeted by terrorist attacks, including the suicide bombing of a campaign rally near the provincial capital of Peshawar earlier this month that killed nearly 30 people.
The party, a secular organization representing ethnic Pashtuns, captured the most – but not a majority – of the seats in the North West Frontier province assembly, trouncing Islamic parties that had governed the province since 2002 elections rigged in their favor.
The party is negotiating with the Pakistan Peoples Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to form a coalition to govern the province. It’s also expected to join Bhutto’s party, which won the largest share of National Assembly seats, in a federal coalition government.