Pakistani Accord Appears Stalled

Backers of Islamist leader Sufi Mohammad march in Mingaora. Mohammad went to the Swat Valley to urge fighters to lay down their arms as part of the pact.
Backers of Islamist leader Sufi Mohammad march in Mingaora. Mohammad went to the Swat Valley to urge fighters to lay down their arms as part of the pact. (By Sherin Zada -- Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable, Karen DeYoung and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 19, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 18 -- A controversial, closely watched peace agreement designed to end Taliban violence in the scenic Swat Valley hung in limbo Wednesday amid criticism in Pakistan and rising concern in Washington.

Neither the Pakistani government nor the Islamist extremists were willing to formalize the accord, announced by Pakistani officials Monday. The proposed pact marks an unprecedented and risky attempt to disarm about 2,000 Taliban fighters, who have invaded and terrorized a once-bucolic area of 1.5 million people in northwestern Pakistan, by offering to install a strict system of Islamic law in the surrounding district.

Supporters see the offer as an urgently needed bid for peace and a potential model for other areas ravaged by Pakistan's growing Islamist militancy, which controls areas 80 miles from the capital of this nuclear-armed Muslim nation. Critics say it would make too many concessions to ruthless extremist forces and provide them with a launching pad to drive deeper into the settled areas of Pakistan from their safe haven in the rough tribal districts along the border with Afghanistan.

"This is a bad idea that sends a very wrong signal," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense and security studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the capital. "It legitimizes the existence of violent armed groups and allows them to draw the wrong lesson: that if you are powerful enough to challenge the writ of the state, it will cave in and appease you."

In Washington, where the Obama administration has been conspicuously silent about the agreement, officials said privately that they considered it a major setback for U.S. goals in the region. "It's a surrender disguised as a truce," one official said, describing it as an admission that the government lacks the capacity to defend the crucial western part of the country.

Several officials said the proposed pact was evidence that the Pakistani government has no coherent plan for combating militancy. One noted that Pakistan had offered no comprehensive package of economic aid or outlined a long-term structure for the region. "This is signing a deal and calling it done," this official said. "What comes next?"

In December, Pakistani troops attempting to roust the Taliban from the Swat Valley were defeated by the far smaller extremist force. The military "met resistance that they and we didn't expect," a U.S. official said, citing sophisticated Taliban tactics, command and communications and participation by extremists from Chechnya and Afghanistan. The military, he said, "won some tactical victories; they didn't win their strategic objectives."

Monday's proposed peace accord took the Obama administration by surprise, U.S. officials said. They received no advance notice of the deal and remained uncertain of what was happening on the ground. "We're not even sure if it's a real deal," a senior U.S. military official said.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic and military sensitivities, said they hoped for clarification by next week, when senior Pakistani and Afghan delegations are due to arrive in Washington for high-level talks that are part of the administration's strategic review of the Afghan war effort and its policy toward Pakistan and the region.

The delegations will be headed by the foreign ministers of the two countries and will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, among others.

Holbrooke, who set up the visits during a tour of the region last week, said Wednesday that the administration expected two things from the meetings. "One, a sense of both countries that they are participating actively in shaping our strategy toward their countries, that it's not just a unilateral dictat. Secondly, " he said, "to stimulate them to do similar strategic thinking."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose government faces an identical challenge from Taliban insurgents controlling large portions of the Afghan countryside, plans to travel to Islamabad on Thursday for talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and other officials.

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