Omar Waraich: Army and Taliban reconsider their options

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The Independent Online

In less than week, the campaign against militancy in Pakistan has dramatically altered. As Washington intensifies its drone strikes in the wild tribal belt on the border with Afghanistan, the Pakistan army and the Taliban have stepped back from each other, possibly to reconsider their options.

The Taliban in Swat announced an "indefinite ceasefire" in the valley yesterday, after the government ceased its faltering military operation and bowed to demands for Islamic law in the region. Next door in Bajaur, the scene of the fiercest fighting, the government and the Taliban have agreed to a tentative truce. The Taliban said they would concentrate on Afghanistan instead.

Meanwhile, Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud has firmed up his once vulnerable base through a new cross-border alliance with once bitter rivals. The new Waziristan umbrella group of militants has declared Mullah Omar its spiritual guide, and Islamabad, Kabul and Washington its enemies.

The Pakistan army - which has lost over 1,500 soldiers - has never found it easy to fight militants on its soil. The war in the tribal areas is deeply unpopular among Pakistanis. And as a force reared to fight a different war on a different border, it lacks the requisite training or equipment to fight hardened guerrillas in their mountainous bases.

In the face of depleting troop morale, and mounting militant gains, officials insist that they had to pursue a "political option". In Swat, even fiercely anti-Taliban residents have been alienated by a conflict that has caused heavy civilian casualties and made up to half a million homeless.

But, as often is the case, a move that is popular at home has elicited criticism from sponsors in Washington. As the Obama administration pours in 17,000 extra troops in neighbouring Afghanistan, there are fears that Pakistan's peace deals could create safe havens for militants intent on thwarting US and NATO aims in the region.

The US and Pakistan armies have scarcely agreed on priorities. Islamabad has traditionally focused on militants attacking its own army. By contrast, Washington has been keen to staunch the flow of militants into Afghanistan – some of whom have non-aggression pacts with the Pakistan army.

In a sign of closer co-operation, CIA-operated drone strikes have begun to target the bases of Mr Mehsud. And this week the New York Times reported that scores of US military advisers and technical specialists are now training Pakistani troops to fight al-Qa'ida and Taliban elements more effectively.

But US airstrikes remain a source of strain. The government is under intense domestic pressure to stop what is seen locally as a violation of sovereignty. In public, Islamabad has condemned the attacks as "counterproductive". Many, however, suspect the attacks enjoy its tacit approval.

They appear to have severed the Pakistan army's alliance with Waziri militants, Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. The two were its allies in a scheme to isolate Mr Mehsud in his home territory. But after airstrikes against them, the pair have turned on the army and united behind Mr Mehsud.

Pakistani analysts also fear that the drone strikes could serve as the next rallying point for the Taliban. "People can understand the need to take out al-Qai'da, but not the ‘collateral damage' that can result," says analyst Maria Sultan. "The drone strikes could become the new base for the Taliban's strategy, moving away from Shari'a and channelling anti-Americanism."