ISLAMABAD: Pakistan resumed peace talks with the Taliban three days back while its military reported gains in a fourth day of heavy fighting against militants dug in along mountain ridges 70 miles from the capital. The two tracks underscore the deep ambivalence of many Pakistanis who would like to see peace succeed — even as Islamabad tries to contain the Taliban with military force because a just-signed peace deal was broken, WSJ reported on Sunday.
The approach also raises questions about Pakistan’s willingness to heed U.S. pressure for an all-out offensive against the Taliban, despite the military moves of the past few days.
Officials in the North West Frontier province, where all of the fighting has been, met Friday with Sufi Mohammed, the cleric who negotiated the original peace deal allowing Islamic law to be established in the Swat Valley, a militant stronghold. The officials and Mr. Mohammed’s supporters described the 30-minute meeting as “positive.” But the government refused Mr. Mohammed’s request to halt the fighting in Swat’s neighboring districts of Buner and Lower Dir, which the Swat Taliban tried to take over.
“The operation will be halted when the armed people lay down their weapons because the government has to establish its writ at any cost,” said the provincial information minister, Mian Iftikhar Hussain. More than 100 people, most of them militants, have been slain on the two sides since fighting began Tuesday, the military said Friday.
The situation is likely to figure prominently in meetings next week between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Pakistani and Afghan counterparts in Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week praised Pakistan for efforts to dislodge the militants.
But Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani — along with Washington — must contend with widespread ambivalence about fighting the Taliban among Pakistan’s public, its political class and its military, which still largely sees India as enemy No. 1 and the Taliban as a distraction.
At the root of the issue is the peace deal worked out in February in Swat. The deal’s main plank — allowing Islamic law in the valley and surrounding areas — was meant to appease locals who were drawn to the Taliban by the militants’ promise to dismantle Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt courts.
Yet instead of backing down and allowing the government to set up Islamic courts, the Taliban immediately set about taking control of the valley and imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Beards became mandatory for men; CD and movie shops were shuttered and women were told to stay home unless chaperoned by a male relative.
The Taliban also began moving into adjacent districts covered by the deal on Islamic law, Lower Dir and Buner. The Taliban say the pact allows them to control these territories to ensure Islamic law is enforced, a claim the government disputes.
The military moved against the militants this week. But aides to Messrs. Zardari and Kayani say the popular support isn’t there to scrap the Swat deal. A perception that fighting the Taliban is tantamount to killing fellow Muslims at the behest of America — a sentiment especially common in the military and police — limits how far the leaders can push the current military offensive, the aides say.
“Very frankly, here is a society that is in denial,” said a senior Pakistani official close to Mr. Zardari. “You can only fight when you have popular political support and public sympathy,” the official said.
Mr. Zardari also faces pressure to maintain the peace deal from frightened officials in the North West Frontier province, run by one of the president’s key coalition partners, the Awami National Party. It negotiated the accord after one of its lawmakers was killed in a Taliban car bombing and its president narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Party officials say the two attacks scared them into seeking peace with the Taliban.
The provincial government said it also sought the deal to end the suffering of civilians in Swat caught between Taliban bombings and shelling by the Pakistani military. At least 1,500 people were killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee in the 18 months before the peace deal. Similar scenes are now coming out of Buner, which could further undercut support for a renewed attack on Swat.
Already, some 30,000 people have fled Buner, home to one million people. In one mountainside village, Chinglai, the streets were empty except for a few elderly men. Most people fled after the Taliban blew up the local police station Wednesday, said Rehman Gul, a schoolteacher, adding “I am not sure how long can I stay here.”
The Taliban’s aggressive moves have helped the government drum up support against them, by bringing the threat home to many members of Pakistan’s middle class and elite. Yet, “we have to be smart to win this,” said Ahsan Iqbal, a top official in the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. “We have to engage in negotiations the ones who can be engaged for peace. We will fight the ones who want to fight.”
That strategy was behind Islamabad’s Swat deal — and undercut by the deal’s collapse. It is similar to one, however, that U.S. officials have said they plan to employ in Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials say when the current military operations push the Taliban back into Swat, the deal can go back into force. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the military, acknowledged to reporters Thursday that the Taliban have been violating the deal from the outset. But “if peace can be brought in the region without further destruction, then it will be a victory for all,” he said.
input from Agencies