Taliban reap a peace dividend
KARACHI - As the temperature rises in the southern mountain vastness of Afghanistan and the melting snow floods the rivers, a blizzard of militancy awaits North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops. At the same time, Pakistan is firmly in the spotlight as Western dignitaries flood to the country to back the new government's resolve for peace talks with local militants to lay down their arms to pave the way for the isolation of al-Qaeda.
Most recently, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana were in Pakistan to support the government's initiative. Senior government and military officials from the United States are expected soon.
In what has been hailed as a significant move, the sub-nationalist Pashtun Awami National Party government of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) released controversial senior pro-Taliban mullah Sufi Muhammad, after he agreed not to engage in violence. This followed a visit to NWFP by Miliband, during which he met top leaders.
The governments in Islamabad and Britain have greeted the deal with Sufi as a "landmark success", but the military distanced itself from the move, concerned it has more to do with political gamesmanship than realities on the ground, in which uncompromising new players have taken over from people such as Sufi, a moderate by comparison.
And in one way the government's peace program plays right into the hands of the Taliban: the more the security forces halt their operations in the tribal areas, the better the Taliban can launch their spring offensive in Afghanistan, which is only weeks away.
Already, the Taliban have had one of their most "peaceful" runups to a spring offensive since being ousted in 2001, given Pakistan's political turmoil following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December and elections in February, and various ceasefires in the tribal areas with the Pakistan military.
Contacts in the tribal areas tell Asia Times Online that by early May the Taliban will have sent all their thousands of men, arms and supplies into Afghanistan. The mood, according to the contacts, is upbeat, and commanders expect May and June to be especially "hot" for foreign troops.
The Taliban also made it clear on Monday that they will keep the noose tight on NATO's supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan. They seized two workers of the World Food Organization in Khyber Agency. The workers were rescued by Pakistani security forces after an exchange of fire - and this on the same day that Sufi Muhammad was released.
Overtaken by time
Sufi Muhammad is a founder of the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM), a movement started for the enforcement of Islamic law in the Swat Valley and Malakand regions in NWFP.
On his release after six years in jail on Monday, he was taken to the chief minister's residence to sign a peace deal with the government. He was quoted as saying that he condemned violence and believed in peaceful co-existence.
Sufi rose to prominence in the mid-1990s during Benazir Bhutto's second administration (1993-1996), when his armed followers blocked key roads to back their demands for the implementation of Islamic law in their area. Bhutto subsequently repeatedly claimed that the armed rebellion was set up by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to destabilize her government. In the late 1990s, Nawaz Sharif's government granted Sufi's demand and framed Islamic laws for the Swat Valley.
After September 11, 2001, Sufi gathered approximately 10,000 untrained armed men to fight against the US invasion of Afghanistan, despite Taliban leader Mullah Omar's opposition. Most of them were either killed or arrested by the Americans or kidnapped by local warlords for ransom. Sufi managed to escape unhurt from Afghanistan, only to be arrested at the border and jailed in Pakistan.
In his absence, the TNSM regrouped under Maulana Muhammad Alam and was allowed to operate with the tacit consent of the ISI. But Sufi's son-in-law Mullah Fazlullah, who had become radicalized after meeting al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, wanted to take the group in a different direction.
He established his own radio station to deliver firebrand anti-establishment speeches, and his popularity sky-rocketed in the Swat Valley. He brushed off warnings from Sufi and the ISI to cool down and listen to the dictates of the local authorities.
In was clear Fazlullah was taking instructions from al-Qaeda, and Sufi and Alam distanced themselves from him before expelling him from the TNSM.
Fazlullah now runs his own "TNSM", overwhelmingly comprising youth from the Swat Valley, Dir and Malakand. He also has close ties with Pakistani Taliban hardliner Baitullah Mehsud in the South Waziristan tribal area.
When the Pakistani military mounted an operation in the Swat Valley last year against Fazlullah, the locals surrendered at the first push and Fazlullah was forced to retreat. But he was then joined by Uzbek fighters and a guerrilla war continues. The deep radical influence of al-Qaeda's ideology has changed the dynamics of the insurgency in the region.
The upshot of this is that making deals with Sufi is of little significance - Fazlullah was quick to announce to the media that he had nothing to do with the peace agreement. That is, the insurgency in the Swat Valley will continue, and in the bigger picture, the Taliban will prime their guns without hindrance.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]