COMMENTARY
 
‘Hot Pursuit’ Threat to Jeopardize Pakistan’s ‘Peace Deals’ with Militants
Weekly Pulse
June 20-26, 2008
After the civilian regime in Pakistan assumed power in March, hopes for stress-free ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan were revived. In his inaugural address at the National Assembly, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani stated the government’s commitment to fight terrorism with the help of a comprehensive package, emphasizing the importance of political and economic initiatives.

As part of this package, the Prime Minister offered peace to militants in Waziristan, conditional upon their renunciation of violence. Maulvi Omar, the leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan responded positively to the offer. Consequently, there was talk of the central government negotiating a formal peace agreement with militants in Waziristan, which has not yet materialized.

In the meantime, however, on May 21, the ANP government in the NWFP announced the signing of an agreement with the militants of Malakand led by Maulana Fazlullah. Under this accord, the militants agreed to stop attacks against security forces and the government agreed to withdraw security forces from the area, release their prisoners and to enforce Sharia, a long-standing demand of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Sharia-e-Muhammadi led by Sufi Muhammad.

Afghan Response

The Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai had also responded positively to the assumption of PPP-led government in Pakistan, reposing trust and confidence in the commitment of its new leadership to counter terrorism. Mr Karzai was perhaps the last foreign leader former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had met hours before her assassination on December 27. Like the rest of the world, the Afghan government should have understood that the coming to power of a government in Islamabad led by a liberal party, the PPP, and a government in the Frontier province led by another liberal party, the ANP, was a good news insofar as jointly tackling the menace of terrorism is concerned.

Probably that is why, even in the aftermath of the May 21 accord in Swat, Afghan-Pak ties began to reflect concrete progress insofar as the lingering issue of cross-border terrorism through the long, unrecognized border between the two countries is concerned. On June 8, Rehman Malik, advisor to the Prime Minister on Interior Affairs and the country’s counter-terrorism czar in the making, traveled to Kabul, met Mr Karzai and both agreed to institutionalize a Border Biometric Control System.

The proposal to this effect had been on the table since February last year, when Pakistan unilaterally started operating this system on its Chaman border crossing with Afghanistan. The Karzai regime continued to oppose the initiative due to its consistent refusal to grant international recognition to the Durand Line. The same factor was responsible for Kabul’s opposition to Pakistan’s bids to put barbed wires at two sections of the Durand Line, one in Waziristan and another along the Pak-Afghan border in Balochistan.

Controlling Border

Seen in this backdrop, the June 8 agreement on setting up a Border Biometric Control System was a significant development, reflecting a new trend in Pak-Afghan ties, whereby the leaderships of the two countries had started to act in concert to tackle cross-border terrorism in a concrete manner. Mr Malik has followed up his visit to Kabul with a public renunciation of negotiating peace with the militants. He has even gone to the extent of saying that the PPP government has renounced the Swat agreement, a statement which the ANP government has rebutted.

As to why the central government has revoked the peace deals, Mr Malik’s plea is that despite these accords, militants have not stopped their terrorist violence. They attacked a police convoy in the suburbs of Peshawar that was escorting Sufi Muhammad, killing four policemen. The terrorist car bombing outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad was another instance that, in Mr Malik’s words, proves the pro-Taliban forces are not complying with their agreement to renounce terrorist violence. And, last week, the Advisor on Interior Affairs claimed that the country’s law enforcement agencies had arrested six members of a local extremist group involved in a number of terrorist acts in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, including the culprits of the Danish embassy bombings. Three vehicles laden with explosives were also taken in custody during the raids, he claimed.

All of these acts of reaching out to the leadership in Kabul, renouncing peace with pro-Taliban militants in Waziristan and Malakand and nabbing terror suspects were practical proofs of the renewed counter-terrorism commitment that the new leadership in Islamabad has shown. And yet the Afghan leadership has gone to the extent of leveling the most serious threat against the country’s sovereignty so far.

Hot Pursuit

In an interview, just in the aftermath of an international donors’ conference on Afghanistan, where pledges to the amount of $20 billion for peace and development of the war-torn country were announced by the international community, Mr Karzai threatened “hot pursuit” by Afghan forces in Pakistan’s border tribal areas to stop the alleged infiltration of Taliban into Afghanistan. He even pointed out three names of the pro-Taliban leaders, Maulvi Omar, Fazlullah and Baitullah Mehsud to be the possible targets of such a “hot pursuit.” Now in an interview with this week’s Pulse, the Afghan President has elaborated the same threat.

By leveling this threat, the Afghan leadership has no doubt raised the stakes in the ongoing War on Terror in Afghanistan, in which Pakistan’s role has been crucial. Pakistan itself has suffered the consequences of this war in the shape of a spate of suicide bombings since the middle of last year in particular, which have claimed hundreds of innocent lives, including that of Bhutto Bhutto.

The reason there has been relative respite in this terrorist violence is because the country’s new civilians-led political dispensation has preferred to undertake options other than merely the military means in a bid to resolve the issue of extremism and its terrorist manifestation once and for all. This is a policy shift that can be expected from any civilian regime led by a coalition of political parties having genuine democratic roots in the country. The ANP government’s deal with the militants in Swat is one such example. It would be disappointing if the deal leads to a serious rift between the PPP-led government in the Centre and the ANP government in the Frontier. Obviously, as Mr. Karzai himself argues in his interview, peace cannot be negotiated with hardcore terrorists, because through their consistent terrorist acts they have proven beyond any doubt their unwillingness for peace.

Peace Deal

Seen from this angle, any peace deal with terrorist leaders like Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah is problematic, because there is no doubt about their direct sponsorship of and participation in acts of terror. When the government of Pakistan, even if not the present one, had itself claimed that Baitullah was responsible for Benazir Bhutto’s murder and Maulana Fazlullah was the chief architect of a series of suicide bombings across the country in the last one year, then it naturally becomes difficult for its part to justify any peace deal with organizations led by these two leaders. The same may be said in the case of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Maulvi Omar.

Despite that, at least in the perception of the ANP government in the Frontier, by leveling the threat of “hot pursuit” against Pakistan, Mr Karzai has attempted to sabotage the peace process that it has initiated with pro-Taliban militants. Mr Karzai has backing of the NATO command in Afghanistan, which has itself raised the stakes by killing a number of Pakistani troops in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

The problem of extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering it can only be best tackled through a concerted effort by Pakistan, Afghanistan, and NATO-led peace mission in the war-torn country. It will not be solved by issuing threats such as that of “hot pursuit” against one of the principal regional partners in this war, on which Afghanistan itself depends hugely for transit trade and private investment worth billions of dollars.

Irresponsible Act

All said and done, the Afghan President has engaged in a highly irresponsible act by threatening Pakistan of hot pursuit. He should better concentrate on Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is driven by a multitude of factors largely indigenous to the country itself. The alleged infiltration of Taliban from Pakistan’s tribal regions may be a factor in this regard, but it is not the only factor.

Pakistan has showed unprecedented hospitality in accommodating millions of Afghan refugees during the jihad in Afghanistan, decades afterwards, including Mr. Karzai and members of his family. If instead of saying ‘thank you’ for Pakistan’s extraordinary kindness, the very people whom it accommodated for decades at home, with all of the accompanying costs, start threatening it of dire consequences after capturing positions of power in Afghanistan, then there cannot be greater injustice or immorality than such an ungrateful and thankless attitude.

Access column at weeklypulse.org