The Taliban will talk, but no 'sugar-coating'
KARACHI - While responding positively to the Pakistani government's offer of peace talks, the Pakistani Taliban have demanded the release of several key personalities in return for the Taliban freeing about 250 security personnel they are holding.
The Pakistani Taliban's list includes Maulana Abdul Aziz, a prayer leader of the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, Mullah Obaidullah, a former minister of defense under Taliban rule in Afghanistan and Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner now in Inter-Services Intelligence detention.
In return, the Pakistani Taliban have offered the safe return of 250 security personnel from their custody.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said the newly elected government would seek peace with the Taliban and offered to hold talks with militants who laid down their weapons.
The Taliban's demand is the first challenge to the new cabinet to make an urgent choice between internal peace on the one side and resentment from Islamabad's "war on terror" allies on the other.
"This demand was given from Baitullah Mehsud's camp as soon as Islamabad proposed dialogue," a source affiliated with the Shura of Mujahideen in the North Waziristan tribal area told Asia Times Online. Mehsud is a leading Pakistani Taliban figure.
Gillani has vowed to eradicate militancy from the country through dialogue. He has also taken the bold step of moving to abolish discriminatory British colonial tribal laws. The Pashtun sub-nationalist Awami National Party, which forms part of a coalition government in North-West Frontier Province, has confirmed it has already started negotiations with the Taliban for peace in the tribal areas. The Taliban have welcomed the change of government in Pakistan.
And the Taliban have a potent bargaining chip in the form of their 250 captives, who include members of the Khasadar tribal force, the Frontier Corps and the Pakistani army seized during clashes between the Taliban and the Pakistani security forces over the past months.
All of the captives are in the custody of Mehsud's men. The hardline al-Qaeda-linked Mehsud, who is wanted in connection with the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto and other suicide attacks in Pakistan, is believed to no longer be in the tribal areas; his only possible hideout could be in Afghanistan, from where he is thought to be sending messages through his local contacts and tribal intermediaries.
A no-win situation?
The government in Islamabad is now in the unenviable position of having to decide between giving in to the Pakistani Taliban's demands and releasing some of its most-wanted detainees, or submitting to inevitable war. Neither option is appealing.
The second-most important ally in the ruling coalition, the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif, fared well in February's parliamentary elections by opposing the policies of President Pervez Musharraf during his years as a military ruler.
Specifically, the party promised the nation it would stop highly contentious military operations in the tribal areas and launch an investigation into the Lal Masjid operation in which the mosque was stormed last year to clear it of radicals. The party also said it would reconstruct the Jamia Hafsa, a women's seminary adjacent to Lal Masjid which was demolished during the operation, and have all prisoners taken during the incident released.
"Yes, we are fully committed to abide by our promises. We will get the investigations into the Lal Masjid operation done, get their prisoners released and reconstruct the women's seminary," said the newly elected member of the National Assembly (and now the minister for youth affairs) Khawaja Saad Rafiq in a television talk show last week.
The problem is, this stance is at odds with that of the leading coalition partner, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Although the PPP desperately wants peace in the country, it will not be at the expense of the "war on terror".
On Monday, the government announced the appointment of Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, retired Major General Mahmood Ali Durrani, as national security advisor to the prime minister. This indicates the PPP does not have any intention of pulling back from its "war on terror" commitments or from Washington's agenda in the region.
Durrani took immediate retirement after the death in a plane crash in 1988 of military dictator General Zia ul-Haq and went to the United States, where he worked for various policy think-tanks. He is considered to be very close to Washington's decision-making community. Due to this rapport, he was appointed envoy to Washington in June 2006 by the Musharraf government. The family of Zia has accused Durrani as being a conspirator in the mysterious plane crash in which Zia died.
One of the most compelling reasons for the PPP not to comply with the demands of the militants - even at the cost of a war with them - is financial. Special secretary at the Ministry of Finance Ashfaq Hassan Khan recently revealed that the US did not release the promised funds for Pakistan's expenditures in the "war on terror" last year and as a result Pakistan was forced to take loans from local banks worth US$5.6 billion.
Should Pakistan now bow to the militants' demands it will surely be seen in Washington as reneging on its "war on terror" commitments, which could mean further money being withheld.
"The age of sugar-coated dialogue is over. If the government means business, it has to make a bargain, otherwise, to us, nothing is changed," a contact belonging to the Pakistani Taliban camp in the tribal areas told Asia Times Online.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]