March 29 (Bloomberg) — Pakistan’s new coalition government will make fighting terrorism its “first priority” and is ready to negotiate with Islamic religious extremists who give up armed conflict, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani said.
“We are ready to talk to anyone who gives up arms,” Gillani told the National Assembly in Islamabad today. “I request people who have taken up arms to put them down and take up the democratic process. Our first priority is to restore peace in the country and fight terrorism,” he said.
Gillani emphasized political, rather than military, steps to combat a spreading insurgency by the Taliban and allied groups based along the border with Afghanistan. In an unexpected step, he proposed ending the autonomous, colonial-style status of the ethnic Pashtun border zone, where the Taliban effectively control thousands of square miles of rugged terrain.
The U.S. government is concerned a softened approach to the extremists may let them expand their base in Pakistan and step up attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The new government’s recent talk of negotiations “is raising red flags all over Washington,” said security analyst Seth Jones of the Washington- based RAND Corporation, a policy research organization.
Although President Pervez Musharraf’s previous military government repeatedly signed peace deals with extremist guerrillas, it also periodically conducted army offensives there and permitted U.S. missile strikes on suspected al-Qaeda targets. The U.S. also is concerned with the political sidelining of Musharraf, its longtime ally in Pakistan, since Gillani was sworn in March 25.
The United States is ready to see negotiations with “reconcilable elements” who can be “persuaded to participate in the democratic political process,” Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said March 27, but not with “irreconcilable elements who want to destroy our very way of life.”
While Taliban forces have declared a truce as the new Pakistani government takes office, it isn’t clear whether that will be sufficient to permit a dialogue, Husain Haqqani, a professor of international relations at Boston University who is a top foreign policy adviser to Gillani, said today in Islamabad.
“Those specifics have to be worked out on the ground,” Haqqani said. “We haven’t even yet had our intelligence and military briefings,” so Gillani was limited today “to laying out the broad lines of policy,” Haqqani said.
Abolishing Tribal Area
Gillani’s proposal to abolish the special status of the border zone startled some observers. Seven isolated ethnic Pashtun districts form a Federally Administered Tribal Area where normal Pakistani laws, courts and police have no jurisdiction.
The tribal areas are ruled by the Frontier Crimes Regulation, imposed in 1901 by British colonial authorities. The law punishes a village or tribe for a crime committed by one of its members. The repressive regime has led residents to see greater hopes in a Taliban-style religious state, Fazlurahim Marwat, a Pashtun political scientist at the University of Peshawar, said in an interview last month.
“I have struggled for 30 years against the FCR, so the Gillani idea is a good one,” Sailab Mahsud, a Pashtun journalist and commentator, said today. “But it’s a huge change and a dangerous time, and they don’t have any other system of government to control” the area, he said.
Haqqani said the transition would be difficult and that the government will work “in a phased manner.”
“The tribal area will be integrated into the rest of Pakistan, with full rights and protections under law for its citizens,” he said. Its continued existence is a “colonial hangover that needs to be changed” more than 60 years after Pakistan was created in the partition of British India.
Gillani said the government will seek to hear the grievances of Pashtuns and intensify economic development work in the impoverished border region. The prime minister’s proposal will need parliamentary approval before it can be enacted.
Pakistan’s public debate runs heavily against the periodic army offensives, ordered by Musharraf, against extremists in the country’s northwest. In a January opinion survey by the International Republican Institute, 73 percent said religious extremism is a serious problem, but only 33 percent thought the army should fight the extremist groups.