Arrow-right Camera


Pakistan, Taliban pact in limbo

THURSDAY, FEB. 19, 2009

Risky proposal raises U.S. concerns

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A controversial, closely watched peace agreement designed to end Taliban violence in the scenic Swat Valley hung in limbo Wednesday, amid criticism in Pakistan and rising concern in Washington.

Neither the Pakistani government nor the Islamic extremists was willing to formalize the accord, announced by Pakistani officials Monday. The proposed pact marks an unprecedented and risky attempt to disarm some 2,000 Taliban fighters, who have invaded and terrorized a once-bucolic tourist area of 1.5 million in northwest Pakistan, by offering to install a strict Islamic law system in the surrounding district.

Supporters see the offer as an urgently needed bid for peace and a potential model for other areas ravaged by Pakistan’s growing Islamist militancy, which now controls areas 80 miles from the capital of this nuclear-armed Muslim nation. Critics say it would make too many concessions to ruthless religious forces and provide them with a launching pad to drive deeper into the settled areas of Pakistan from their safe haven in the rough tribal districts along the border with Afghanistan.

“This is a bad idea that sends a very wrong signal,” said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense and security studies at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, the capital. “It legitimizes the existence of violent armed groups and allows them to draw the wrong lesson: that if you are powerful enough to challenge the writ of the state, it will cave in and appease you.”

In Washington, where the Obama administration has been conspicuously silent about the agreement, officials said privately they considered it a major setback for U.S. goals in the region. “It’s a surrender disguised as a truce,” one official said, describing it as an admission that the government lacks the capacity to defend the crucial western part of the country.

Several officials said the proposed pact was evidence that the Pakistani government has no coherent plan for combating militancy. One noted that Islamabad had offered no comprehensive package of economic aid or outlined a long-term structure for the region. “This is signing a deal and calling it done,” this official said. “What comes next?”

In December, Pakistani military efforts to roust the Taliban from the Swat Valley were defeated by the far smaller extremist force. The miltiary “met resistance that they and we didn’t expect,” a U.S. official said, citing sophisticated Taliban tactics, command and communications and participation by extremists from Chechnya and Afghanistan. The military, he said, “won some tactical victories; they didn’t win their strategic objectives.”

Monday’s proposed peace accord took the Obama administration by surprise, U.S. officials said. They received no advance notice of the deal and remained uncertain of what was happening on the ground. “We’re not even sure if it’s a real deal,” a senior U.S. military official said.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic and military sensitivities, said they hoped for clarification by next week, when senior Pakistani and Afghan delegations are due to arrive in Washington for high-level talks that are part of the administration’s strategic review of the Afghan war effort and its policy toward Pakistan and the region.

Click here to comment on this story »