ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Since shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the U.S., Pakistan has relied on its military to confront Islamic militants near the country’s border with Afghanistan, pounding their bases with bombs. But in both Pakistan’s borderlands and capital, many believe the strategy has backfired, as the militants gained strength and spread their influence.
Calling for a different approach, the leaders of the victorious opposition parties in this week’s parliamentary elections have proposed negotiating with the militants. Having embarrassed President Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief, at the polls, they argue that reaching out to the insurgents and understanding them may work better than fighting them.
But many terrorism experts fear such an approach may prove disastrous for the U.S.-Pakistani alliance against terror. Some are concerned that it could interfere with the carefully crafted understanding the U.S. has with Pakistan and that the insurgents may be too ideological to negotiate.
“There’s always this talk of negotiated settlement with extremist elements,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi and editor of the South Asia Intelligence Review. “They have almost always failed. … these people see themselves as religious warriors. And this kind of faith-based extremism is one of the most difficult to counter.”
U.S. officials will be watching closely as the top two opposition leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, define their agendas in the American-led war on terror, which has focused on the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan because training camps there have spawned militants who have launched attacks worldwide.
This week, Zardari, head of the Pakistan People’s Party, which garnered the most election votes, said he wants to talk to “the men in the mountains” and redefine the country’s approach to terrorism.
In the past 18 months, the Musharraf government’s truces with militants in tribal areas have failed spectacularly, as militants typically used the truces to regroup, recruit more fighters and stage more complicated attacks, raising questions about how any future negotiations could work.
The New York Times reported Friday that U.S. officials are concerned a new leadership could curtail the U.S. ability to launch secret strikes against alleged terrorists by unmanned aircraft from inside Pakistan. The Times reported that U.S. officials, on a visit last month to Islamabad, reached a quiet understanding with Musharraf to intensify those strikes.
The Bush administration has considered Musharraf an important ally in the war on terror, despite recurring questions in Washington about his commitment. Meanwhile, Musharraf has faced criticism at home that he is fighting the United States’ war and relying too much on military power.
“America thinks everything can be done by force,” said a senior Pakistani government official and former army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Force is not going to work here, and it has not worked. When you try something and it doesn’t work, then it’s time to try something else.”
In a poll released this month by the International Republican Institute, 73 percent of Pakistanis surveyed said religious extremism is a serious problem in Pakistan. But only 33 percent supported the army fighting extremists in the North-West Frontier province. Just 9 percent said Pakistan should cooperate with the U.S. in its war on terror.
North-West provincial officials blame the central government for sidelining political representatives in the tribal areas and not investing enough in economic development — whether schools or roads — to win over the local people. Often they are caught between the army and militants from their own tribe.
Officials say the militants pay as much as $167 a month to illiterate young men in the tribal areas — a good wage. And others have joined the militants because they want revenge — for an army bombing that accidentally killed a relative or for the army raid on a militant mosque in Islamabad last July.
Motivated by revenge
The notion of revenge is central to the code of honor along this Pashtun tribal belt. Before that mosque raid, about 550 army soldiers had been killed in fighting with militants since the beginning of 2002. Since July, the soldier death toll has almost doubled.
Government officials know of cases in which a government judge is the cousin of a Taliban fighter and cases of brothers fighting brothers.
“One cousin is in the Frontier Constabulary and loyal to me. His cousin is unemployed and with the Taliban,” said Malik Naveed Khan, the commander of the government’s paramilitary force based in Peshawar. “Nothing could be worse than what has happened here. It has totally torn the fabric of this society.”
Some believe the election could help in the battle by lending more legitimacy to the government, an issue that many believe has been a problem for Musharraf since he seized power in 1999.
“From a strategic standpoint — the sheer legitimacy of having a legitimate government takes the wind out of the sails of militants,” said a Western military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. But he added that he believed the talk of negotiating with militants was simply “political rhetoric” and that it would be very difficult for the new leaders to alter course.
Most of more than $10 billion the U.S. has given to Pakistan in the past six years went to the Pakistani military, with few checks and balances. The Western military official said as much as half had been wasted and has not gone to improve security in the tribal areas.
“God knows where the money went,” he said.
The military official doubted the Pakistani army could change direction quickly, even if the political forces here demand it. The new army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has been trying to distance the army from politics and Musharraf.
But the official agreed that both the West and Pakistan have made the same mistakes in the past six years, which has led to the crisis only getting worse.
“It’s a failure … to be able to really form a cohesive strategy, a workable strategy,” he said, adding that the West had put its resources “in the wrong places” and now is “really behind the power curve. It’s been one misstep after another.”