By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 5 -- The government of Pakistan signed a peace accord Tuesday with pro-Taliban forces in the volatile tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, agreeing to withdraw its troops from the region in return for the fighters' pledge to stop attacks inside Pakistan and across the border.
Under the pact, foreign fighters would have to leave North Waziristan or live peaceable lives if they remained. The militias would not set up a "parallel" government administration.
Reached as Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, prepared to visit the Afghan capital Wednesday, the accord aroused alarm among some analysts in Afghanistan. They expressed concern that, whatever the militias promise, a Pakistani army withdrawal might backfire, emboldening the groups to operate more freely in Pakistan and to infiltrate more aggressively into Afghanistan to fight U.S. and allied forces there.
"This could be a very dangerous development," said one official at an international agency, speaking anonymously because the issue is sensitive in both countries. "Until recently there has been relative stability in eastern Afghanistan, but now that could start to deteriorate."
The agreement could add a new element of tension to Musharraf's visit, aimed at smoothing over his relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two Muslim leaders, both allies in the U.S.-led war against Islamic extremists, have clashed heatedly over allegations that Taliban forces in Afghanistan are receiving support and shelter from inside Pakistan.
Pakistan's move also appeared to complicate the U.S. role in the region. U.S. officials have praised Musharraf for his help in capturing al-Qaeda members and refrained from pressing him hard on cross-border violence. A withdrawal of Pakistani forces could reduce pressure on al-Qaeda figures believed to be hiding in the region, including Osama bin Laden, allowing them more freedom of action.
NATO forces are currently in a fierce conflict with Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan, where the militia has attacked in rural districts with increasing boldness in recent months. In the past four days, officials said, a NATO military operation in Kandahar province has killed more than 200 insurgents.
The conflict spread during the summer across the south, where about 10,000 NATO troops recently replaced a smaller number of U.S.-led forces. This week, Britain's top army officer said his forces were barely able to cope with the conflict, and the senior NATO commander here appealed for more support from member countries.
More than 1,500 people have been killed in combat and terrorist attacks this year as violence in Afghanistan swelled to its highest level since 2001, when U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power. Suicide bombings, once unheard of, are now almost daily occurrences. Schools have been burned across the region and dozens of community leaders have been assassinated.
U.S. forces continue operating in eastern Afghanistan, where attacks have been far less frequent. But in recent weeks, attacks have stepped up dramatically in Ghazni province, situated between the two regions.
Many Afghans, including President Karzai, have blamed Pakistan for the violence. They charge that the Musharraf government has either failed to control Islamic militants at home or actively supported the Taliban militia, which it officially backed until 2001, in order to destabilize and gain sway over Afghanistan.
Musharraf has denied such claims and vowed to curb armed Islamic extremism in the border areas. In the past several years, he has sent more than 80,000 army troops into the semiautonomous tribal region, where Islamic militants including Afghans, Pakistanis and some Arabs were defying government rule, killing opponents and preaching holy war against the West.
The army units have met with fierce opposition, however, and critics say their presence undermined the tribal political system needed to counter rising Islamic militancy. On Tuesday, the peace pact was greeted with relief and jubilation by army and tribal representatives who gathered in the border town of Miran Shah in the North Waziristan tribal area, according to news service reports.
But some analysts said that the agreement exposed the military government's weakness and that by withdrawing troops, Musharraf is buying a dubious local peace at the risk of giving pro-Taliban groups more power both at home and across the border.
Taliban leaders in North Waziristan announced a unilateral cease-fire during the summer as peace talks got underway. But they have reportedly continued their brutal tactics, such as executing people they view as traitors. Less than a week ago, Pakistani officials found the headless bodies of two men near Miran Shah with notes saying they had been spies for the Kabul government.