PESHAWAR, Pakistan, (Reuters) – Pakistan is close to clinching a peace pact with one of the most recalcitrant tribes in its lawless border regions to rein a Taliban leader regarded as a cohort of al Qaeda.
Baitullah Mehsud hails from the Shahbikhel, a sub-tribe of the Mehsud, who with the Wazir represent the main tribes in Waziristan, the tribal region furthest from Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province.
Nullifying the threat posed by the semi-literate and barely 5-ft (1.5 m) tall Mehsud, seen as one of the country’s most dangerous militants, is a priority for Pakistan’s new government. His followers are believed to have played a central role in a campaign of violence, including a wave of suicide attacks, that engulfed Pakistan after the army stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque last July to crush an armed student movement. “It’s now a matter of days before we have an agreement. The talks are in a very advanced stage,” a senior government official involved in the negotiations told Reuters.
The government is negotiating with the elders of the Mehsud tribe to pressure the thirty-something militant leader, who says he is compelled by his religion to fight to his death to drive foreign occupiers from tribal lands.
Pakistani officials in the last government, and CIA Director Michael Hayden, named Mehsud as prime suspect in the assassination of former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in December.
The new government, led by Bhutto’s party, is not so sure about Mehsud’s guilt, and is still holding out for a U.N. investigation.
A draft of the 15-point accord with the Mehsud tribal elders was shown to Reuters. It included a call for an end to militant activity, exchange of prisoners and gradual withdrawal of the army from South Waziristan.
The draft did not explicitly say whether militants should stop cross-border attacks into neighbouring Afghanistan. But it did say Mehsud tribesmen should expel al Qaeda and other foreign fighters from their area within a month and stop their lands being used as a base for attacks.
While the authorities and tribal elders made final touches to the pact, Mehsud, who was declared as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban late last year, on Wednesday ordered his followers to stop attacks inside Pakistan.
A government official described the ceasefire as part of a series of confidence building measures that will be taken before the agreement is signed. He said the government also planned to lift blockade of Mehsud territory by the military.
Having won an election in February, and formed a coalition last month, the partners in the new government are keen to break with the policies of President Pervez Musharraf, who has tried everything from military offensives to appeasement.
Critics say the new government will end up trying all the options Musharraf has already tried, but it won’t be handicapped by the baggage of Musharraf’s unpopularity.
Musharraf was demonised by al Qaeda and associated Pakistani jihadi movements after he abandoned support for the Taliban in Afghanistan by joining a U.S.-led war on terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. He was also deeply unpopular among the Pashtun tribes for having deployed the army in the semi-autonomous tribal lands in 2002, the first time in Pakistan’s history.
Security analysts say the accord might lead to a lull in militant activity but it was unlikely to last long.
Similar pacts have been made in the past, and critics, including U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, said such deals let the al Qaeda and the Taliban regroup in peace.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Richard Boucher, on Wednesday extended a cautious support for talks with the tribes. “But in the end, it’s the outcome that matters,” he told a press briefing in Washington. “Are these agreements going to produce an end to the cross-border infiltration, and end to the suicide bombers that head into other parts of Pakistan as well as into Afghanistan, and an end to the plotting and planning of al Qaeda from this area?”