The Pakistani government is close to an agreement to end hostilities with the most militant tribes in its turbulent border area, whose main leader is accused of orchestrating most of the suicide bombings of recent months and the assassination of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
A 15-point draft of the accord, which was shown to The New York Times, called for an end to militant activity and an exchange of prisoners in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from part of the tribal region of South Waziristan.
Even as the accord, a far-reaching draft that essentially forbids the tribes from engaging in nearly all illegal actions, was being negotiated by the government through tribal elders, the militant leader, Baitullah Mehsud, ordered his fighters to cease their activities in the tribal regions as well as the adjoining North-West Frontier province, warning of strict punishment of any violators.
American and Afghan officials were immediately skeptical of a deal with Mehsud, one of Pakistan’s most hard-line militants. They have blamed past accords for allowing the Taliban and al-Qaida to regroup, fortify their ties and use Pakistan as a base to plot attacks here and abroad. Previously, members of Pakistan’s new coalition government had said they considered Mehsud irretrievably hostile.
“We have seen the agreements they have made before, and they do not work,” said one U.S. official, referring to an agreement in North Waziristan in September 2006, which was blamed for strengthening the militants and a surge in crossborder attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
In Washington, the White House spokeswoman, Dana Perino, was also wary. “We are concerned about it,” she said, referring to the possibility of an accord, “and what we encourage them to do is to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there.”
The approach to Mehsud followed pledges by the new government to make a break with the policies President Pervez Musharraf has embraced in recent years, to pursue dialogue with the militants and to restore calm to Pakistan, which has been roiled by suicide attacks. Diplomats and Afghan officials suggested that the government was trying to show good will, while playing for time to bring stability.
Though Musharraf, too, negotiated with the militants, he used the military in the tribal areas in a way that many Pakistanis criticized as heavy handed, losing hundreds of Pakistani troops in the fighting. The military operations and his alliance with the United States in combating terrorism have grown deeply unpopular.
The United States has consistently discouraged negotiations with militants — what Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte described as “irreconcilable elements” during a visit to Pakistan in March. “I don’t see how you can talk with those kinds of people,” he said.
Mehsud, perhaps Pakistan’s most notorious militant, leads an umbrella group of the militants in the border areas, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Taliban Movement of Pakistan.