Pakistan-Taliban Agreement Prompts Concern

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, September 08, 2006

Pakistan-Taliban Agreement Prompts Concern

( - President Bush said Thursday the U.S. will keep a close eye on a peace agreement signed between the Pakistan government and Islamists in a remote frontier region where fugitive al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be located.

At the same time, the president said in an ABC News interview, he did not believe the deal would provide "safe haven" to terrorists.

But critics of the agreement are worried about such a scenario. The deal signed earlier this week in Pakistan's restive North Waziristan region is interpreted by some as allowing foreign terrorists to remain in the area on condition they remain peaceful.

"The agreement envisages that the foreigners living in North Waziristan will have to leave Pakistan but those who cannot leave will be allowed to live peacefully, respecting the law of the land and the agreement," Pakistan's Dawn daily reported.

Regional security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman said the provision in the agreement calling for terrorists to leave the area was therefore purely voluntary.

"It will be the responsibility of the tribal elders to persuade them to leave or to become law-abiding residents of the area if they choose to continue to live in this area. The government has agreed that they will not be arrested and deported," noted Raman, director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, India.

"Thus, bin Laden and [al-Qaeda number two Ayman] Zawahiri can continue to live in this area without fear of being arrested and deported if the tribal elders certify that they are not violating law and order."

Counterterrorism consultant Daveed Gartenstein-Ross said the deal "essentially cedes authority in the North Waziristan tribal region to the Taliban and al Qaeda."

Noting the provision that foreign terrorists can stay in the area if they pledge to keep the peace, he said that was defined in terms of attacks against the military.

"Thus, planning and training for terrorist attacks against the West - and even bolstering the Taliban insurgency's fighting in Afghanistan - may not capture Pakistan's attention as a violation of the treaty."

The agreement, which aims to end two years of violence in the area, was signed between President Pervez Musharraf's government and seven Islamists representing a Pakistani grouping which calls itself Taliban and has close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Dawn reported that the venue for the signing ceremony was "heavily guarded by armed Taliban."

'Launching pad'

Under the deal, the government agreed to withdraw soldiers from border checkpoints, which would again become the responsibility of tribal policemen; to stop ground and air operations against the extremists; and to resolve differences through "local customs and traditions."

The government also agreed to free prisoners arrested during a costly, drawn-out military campaign there, and to return confiscated weaponry, vehicles and equipment.

For their part, the Islamists agreed not to allow cross-border incursions into Afghanistan or attacks against Pakistani law-enforcement personnel or property.

"We are watching this very carefully, obviously," Bush told ABC News. "We have made it clear that ... [Musharraf] should not provide an environment that enables people to go from his country into Afghanistan."

The president said Pakistan's ruler had made it clear in their conversations that he "does not want his country to become a launching pad for military actions against neighbors and/or U.S. troops."

Supporters of the deal have argued that peace in the traditionally lawless area may allow economic development which in turn would help to diminish the hold that Islamist clerics and tribal chieftains have over the local people.

Pakistani media reported that the deal was being quickly implemented. By Thursday, troops were being withdrawn from border checkpoints, seized weapons and vehicles were being returned and more than 130 people had been released.

Under fire over some aspects of the agreement, Pakistani Defense Minister Rao Sikandar Iqbal denied that it meant the armed forces would stop operating against terrorists, including bin Laden.

And Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said in a television interview there would be no amnesty for "anyone who is wanted, or is a terrorist, or has committed acts of terror anywhere in the world."

'Wait and see'

Visiting Afghanistan Wednesday, Musharraf said the agreement meant there would be "no Taliban activity on our side of the border or across the border in Afghanistan."

But he also said that his government would risk a "total uprising" in Waziristan if it allowed U.S. forces currently in Afghanistan to cross the border into Pakistani territory.

President Hamid Karzai, whose ties with Musharraf have been strained over mutual allegations of insufficient effort to prevent cross-border infiltration by terrorists, appeared cautious about the agreement, saying "we will wait and see."

Pakistan's Daily Times quoted Afghan analyst Waheed Mujda as saying the deal was "not good" for Afghanistan

"Obviously it gives more sanctuary for the Taliban, who are coming to Afghanistan for attacks."

Raman, the Indian analyst, recalled that Pakistan signed a similar agreement in South Waziristan two years ago. The result had been that al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and their supporters had simply moved into North Waziristan, from there they began to operate.

With the new agreement, he predicted the terrorists would simply move their operations to another neighboring tribal area.

Raman said that apart from Afghan Pashtuns and Uzbeks, other foreigners who have been present in North Waziristan include Arabs - especially Saudis, Egyptians and Yemenis - Chechens and Uighurs.

After the Taliban's al-Qaeda allies attacked the U.S. five years ago this month, Musharraf bowed to U.S. pressure and ended Pakistan's close ties with the Taliban, which at that time ruled most of Afghanistan.

Since then, Washington has regarded Musharraf as a key ally in the war against Islamic terrorists. Hundreds of terrorists, including some very senior al-Qaeda operatives, have been captured in Pakistan.

But suspicions of continuing pro-Taliban sympathy in the Pakistani military and intelligence service run deep in the region. Musharraf has frequently - and testily - denied charges that bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are likely sheltering in Pakistan.

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