Islamabad, — Pakistan – The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Monday that Pakistan’s extension of a deadline for the surrender of militants raises questions about the nation’s commitment to fighting Taliban and al Qaeda in its tribal regions, and he suggested that appeasing extremists will only put off an inevitable battle.
“It’s very important that the Pakistani military continue with their operations to go after the foreign fighters in particular, who in my view will not be reconciled” with the government, Lt. Gen. David Barno said.
In an attempt to smoke out suspected terrorists and Taliban fighters, Islamabad opened a violent campaign against suspected foreign fighters in the South Waziristan tribal region along the Afghan border in March, but the operation failed to net any top al Qaeda operatives. Since then, the government has freed 141 of the 163 Pakistanis detained during the 12-day battle and offered an amnesty to foreign fighters who renounce terrorism.
On Friday, however, not a single person stepped forward as a deadline expired for foreigners in the tribal areas to register with the government, and officials quickly granted a one-week extension, saying tribal elders had argued for more time.
Barno said the U.S. military is watching closely to see how Pakistan deals with the militants, but he added that a “significant” number have to be killed or captured.
Instead, in the standoff between Islamabad and the foreign fighters, the government appears to have blinked, said Pakistani analysts familiar with the tribal areas.
“At the moment, tribesmen appear to have the upper hand, and the government, by contrast, appears inept,” said Asadullah Khan, a political analyst in Peshawar, capital of the Northwest Frontier province, which borders the tribal areas.
Observers worry that the extension granted by the government will allow suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives to escape areas protected by the army or flee into neighboring Afghanistan.
“Everyone understands the desire to avoid open conflict,” said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Massood. But, he added: “If the idea was to go in with force and show them who is boss, the objective remains unattained. By going in and then pulling back in such a manner, the tribes likely now have the wrong impression — that they can do whatever they like without fear from government forces.”
The latest failed showdown followed on the heels of a much-derided reconciliation ceremony featuring five tribesmen who had been accused of sheltering al Qaeda and commanding battles against security forces in which more than 120 people died. At a ceremony in South Waziristan on April 24, they were offered amnesty in exchange for pledges of loyalty to Pakistan.
“Pakistanis could not believe their eyes when they saw pictures of army commanders embracing these men who had been vilified as terrorists,” said Massood. “If anybody has gained, it’s not the government.”
One of the men, Nek Mohammad, has since indicated that he will continue to wage a jihad, or holy war, against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He also renewed his pledges of loyalty to Taliban supreme commander Mullah Mohammed Omar and scoffed at government efforts to rein in the militants.
“I told the army I would not fire on Afghanistan from Waziristan soil, but jihad is binding on every Muslim, and we will continue to help Afghanistan, ” Mohammad told local journalists. “In the tribal tradition, surrender means you approach the rival group and meet them on their turf. In my case, I did not go to them, they came to me, so that makes it clear who surrendered to whom.”
Since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Pakistan has come under enormous pressure to exert control over its seven largely autonomous tribal areas, which officials suspect are sheltering Taliban and al Qaeda operatives, including Osama bin Laden. The tribal belt, inhabited by people from the same Pashtun ethnic group as the Taliban leadership, was the main staging area for the multinational battle in the 1980s to rout the Soviets from Afghanistan. But two years of negotiations, hit-and-run army operations and even promises of aid have failed to rein in the unruly area.
The U.S. military and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad support talks to bring former Afghan militants living in the tribal areas back into the political mainstream. But Barno, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, warned that Pakistan is grappling with a terrorist network that is “very crafty and has great ability to ultimately not give anything up.”
“We clearly still see significant elements of foreign fighters there — Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks … who are still using that area to advance their terrorist aims,” he said.
Barno has boosted his forces in Afghanistan from 11,000 to about 15,000 since the end of last year, but the extra troops have failed to prevent a surge of violence. More than 300 people have been killed in the country so far this year, including almost 100 in the past month.
Pakistani army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan insisted there was no rift with the United States. “Pakistan is saying nothing different from what the U.S. commander is saying. We also say that the foreign elements in our tribal areas must surrender, otherwise they will be killed,” Sultan said.
But Pakistani analysts say the only proof that the government’s strategy in the tribal areas is paying off would be a significant drop in militant activities both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.
“So far, there are no tangible results to speak of, but the government has to keep applying pressure while simultaneously working to convince (the tribal people) that Pakistan’s best interests are their best interests,” said Massood. “If that doesn’t help improve the situation, the government has to be ready to go in again with as much force as needed to establish its command.”