Sunday, March 1, 2009

Slide toward anarchy

Islamabad's deal with the Taliban may be a turning point in a failing regional battle against extremism

February 28, 2009

LAHORE -- A spate of ceasefires between the Pakistani army and government, on one hand and the Pakistani Taliban across northern Pakistan, on the other, are a watershed in the country's steady slide toward greater anarchy and loss of state control over large areas of territory.

The ceasefires are a strategic attempt by both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to unify and concentrate their forces for a spring offensive against the expected arrival of 17,000 more U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan, where Canada also has nearly 3,000 soldiers. These fast-moving developments come as the U.S. and NATO struggle to find a common strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan before the NATO summit on April 2.

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, has sent a letter to the commanders of the Pakistani Taliban, urging them to immediately stop attacks on the Pakistani army. "If anybody really wants to wage jihad, he must fight the occupation forces inside Afghanistan," Mr. Omar reportedly wrote. "Attacks on Pakistani security forces by militants in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan are harming the war against U.S and NATO forces in Afghanistan."

Mullah Omar, who is believed to be based in Quetta, in Pakistan's southern province of Baluchistan, followed up by sending envoys to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) - the tribal belt adjoining Afghanistan - where the Pakistani Taliban leaders are based. His appeal was part of a concerted attempt by al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, calling upon the Pakistani Taliban to unite.
Their efforts have resulted in an unprecedented show of unity by the once divided Pakistani Taliban commanders, who have been fighting Pakistani forces in FATA since 2004. Three major warlords of the region, Baitullah Meshsud and his two rivals Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul have struck up a new alliance called the Shura-e-Ittehad ul Mujaheddin or Council of United Holy Warriors. They have called for a ceasefire with the Pakistani army in Bajaur, where the army has been carrying out an offensive since last August. Islamabad still has to respond to the offer.

The government and the army, however, have already ceded control to another branch of the Pakistani Taliban, further east in the Swat valley and Malakand district, just 100 miles north of Islamabad. Maulana Sufi Mohammed, a radical cleric who was freed last year after spending six years in jail for leading 10,000 Pashtun tribesmen in a futile attempt to oppose the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, is now leading a peace march through the strategic Swat valley. He is trying to convince his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, who leads the Swati contingent of the Pakistani Taliban and is closely allied to al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, to accept the government's offer of a ceasefire and enforcement in Swat of Nizam-e-Adl (an Islamic justice system).

While the government insists the legal change will be only a limited application of Islamic justice through the local courts, the Taliban interpret it as allowing the full application of sharia, affecting all aspects of education, administration and law and order in the region.

Mr. Fazlullah's men, aided by Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs, have fought bloody battles with the army over the past two years, finally driving the army out and taking control of most of Swat last year. The fighting has led to some 1,200 civilian deaths and the forced exodus of an estimated 350,000 people out of a population of 1.5-million. Mr. Fazlullah has blown up 200 girls' schools, hanged policemen and teachers and set up sharia courts. He now runs a parallel government. Rather than order the army to retake Swat, the Pakistan Peoples Party government in Islamabad led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, and the Awami National Party, a Pashtun secular party that runs the provincial government of the North West Frontier Province, have capitulated to the Taliban's demands in order to avoid more violence.
The full article is here

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