Pakistan's peace with terrorists hits snag: sovereignty

The new Pakistani government’s policy of peace through negotiations with radical Islamist terrorists came to a momentary halt when the man who had Benazir Bhutto assassinated decided that Islamabad hadn’t retreated enough for his taste. Baitullah Mehsud broke off talks when the government refused to withdraw troops from its own sovereign areas in Waziristan. The cease-fire remains in place, at least for the moment:

A top Taleban commander in Pakistan has halted peace talks with the government, his spokesman says.

Last week Baitullah Mehsud ordered a ceasefire amid reports that he was close to reaching a peace deal with the new government.

But his spokesman says talks have broken down because the government refuses to order troops out of the tribal areas by the Afghan border. …

“The government refused to pull out its forces from the tribal areas which forced Mehsud to call off the talks,” Mehsud’s spokesman Maulvi Omar, told the AFP news agency.

Mehsud and Pervez Musharraf understand what the new Pakistani government does not: the Taliban doesn’t want a negotiated, peaceful coexistence. They want an imposition of strict shari’a and the elimination of elected government. Mehsud envisions a mullahcracy, similar to Afghanistan before the fall of the Taliban after 9/11 or somewhat similar to Iran now.

The existence of secular law as represented by Islamabad’s troops in Waziristan and in the NWFP is intolerable to Mehsud and his fellow radicals. They want Pakistan to retreat from the western provinces, in effect leaving Mehsud with de facto sovereignty and the ability to rule these areas like a caliphate. The “negotiations” only matter to Mehsud in how fast Pakistan will agree to withdraw its writ from the three provinces, and when Mehsud can begin building his own armies to replace them without interference from Pakistan or anyone else.

In a way, that could make the situation easier for the US and NATO in Afghanistan. If Pakistan does withdraw its armed forces from these provinces, the case for pursuit becomes much clearer and less complicated for NATO. If Pakistan refuses to secure these territories, then they have little basis for complaint if the West starts attacking Taliban and al-Qaeda bases that Pakistan refuses to address. It also gets the Pakistani Army out of the way and makes collateral damage to soldiers much less likely.

The BBC reports that the US has been “cautiously supportive” of the negotiations. If so, it may be that the US sees the strategic advantage in the short term of the withdrawal of the Pakistani Army, which wasn’t inclined to do much about terrorists anyway. Either that, or the Bush administration figures that the new government is determined to learn this lesson the hard way and doesn’t see much point in interfering with the lesson. In either case, Mehsud may regret pushing for a Pakistani withdrawal from the frontier, and the new government may find it difficult to reclaim sovereignty once they relinquish it.