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Pakistan buys a little time
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

MIRANSHAH, North Waziristan Agency, Pakistan - They were described as terrorists only few days ago, but now they have been decorated with garlands of flowers, and a tough-talking Pakistani corps commander even traveled to Wana in South Waziristan Agency to oversee the terms of their release.

In a bid to gain the support of tribal leaders in the search for al-Qaeda operatives, Pakistan at the weekend freed 50 men arrested during the recent bloody counterterrorism offensive near the Afghan border in South Waziristan.

Earlier, authorities pardoned five tribal leaders accused of harboring al-Qaeda fugitives and Afghan resistance figures, and a truce was negotiated between the Pakistani army and tribals.

The million-dollar question remains unanswered, though. How long can the truce last?

"Thank God all matters have settled down very well, but if you ask how long this truce will last, nobody can guarantee it because it is a tribal society and we face this kind of problem off and on," said a member of the National Assembly from North Waziristan, Pir Naik Zaman, while talking to this correspondent in Jamia Ashrafia, Miranshah.

"Our army and our people [are involved]. Initially, the army operated wrongly [by going into the tribal areas] but now they have realized their mistake and the matter has been settled as per tribal traditions and through dialogue [tribal council]," the Mutahidda Majlis-i-Amal's member of parliament, Naik Zaman, added.

Under pressure from the United States, Pakistan deployed many thousands of troops in the tribal areas. Traditionally free of government control, regions like Waziristan are believed to provide sanctuary for anti-Kabul rebels operating in southern and eastern Afghanistan, as well as al-Qaeda remnants and even possibly Osama bin Laden. Many scores of tribals and soldiers have died in fierce fighting in the region over the past weeks.

Despite the confidence of the politicians, though, sentiment among the masses that there will be peace remains low.

There is growing local unrest, especially as additional forces of the Sindh regiment have now joined with Pakistan troops and Frontier Corps forces in North Waziristan, which is being read as a prelude for another operation, this time in North Waziristan.

"You know, when the Pakistan army used to patrol in our area, the local farmers would greet them and provide them with free vegetables, but after the South Waziristan operation, the Pakistani armed forces have lost their goodwill. Now they do not roam in the market in uniform, and even on their patrols they keep local khasadars [a sort of local tribal police] for their security," said a local doctor.

Indigenous factors apart, external factors as well are adding fuel to the fire.

Local tribesmen showed this correspondent a well-written pamphlet in the Urdu language entitled "A message to the Pakistan army". The pamphlet is thought to have been brought to North Waziristan from the capital Islamabad in large numbers and distributed all over North Waziristan and in Frontier Corps offices.

The pamphlet, most likely the work of radical Islamic organizations, urges army soldiers that instead of fighting "for the crusaders", they should give up their jobs and do some other business. The pamphlets have been generally well received.

Local sources told Asia Times Online that even before the tribals decided on their terms of the truce, one of the wanted men from South Waziristan, Mohammed Sharif, was invited to Peshawar Corps headquarters, where he met the corps commander and gave a guarantee that if Pakistani forces pulled out from the area, and give them Rs 100 million (US$1.7 million) in compensation, they would end their insurgency against Pakistani troops in the area. Apparently, the corps commander did not have any alternative but to accept the terms. As a result, the commander went all the way to Wana and hugged and kissed the "terrorists" and announced news of the compensation.

So for the time being, relative peace has returned to the area. But the underlying pressures remain - the US wants Pakistan to take on the Afghan resistance fighters (and foreign elements) taking shelter on Pakistan soil, and the tribals giving them shelter and support - either actively or passively - have to be dealt with.

It is only a matter of time therefore before a new offensive begins. Already, Pakistan troops, under the watchful eye of US Federal Bureau of Investigation members holed up in a vocational training center in the tribal headquarters of Miranshah, are gathering in North Waziristan for the final showdown expected to take place in Shawal, a rugged no-man's land that straddles the Durand Line that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Apr 28, 2004

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