Pakistani militants savor a sweet deal
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Pakistani authorities claim that no deal was made regarding the
release at the weekend of the country's envoy to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin,
who had been in the captivity of the Pakistani Taliban for three months.
But this is pure fantasy. There certainly was a deal, orchestrated by
pro-al-Qaeda Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, and far from indicating
any move on the part of the militants to negotiate, they are expected to launch
more and more attacks on Pakistan to build up pressure and minimize Islamabad's
role in the United States-led "war on terror".
To underscore this, a suicide bomber on Sunday killed 11 people
and wounded 22 at a market in Mardan close to a Pakistani military camp in
North-West Frontier Province.
On Saturday, Islamabad freed 55 Taliban militants ranging in importance and
also paid a sum of 20 million Pakistani rupees (US$287,000) to the militants.
In turn, Azizuddin, who had been abducted in Khyber Agency, and dozens of
Pakistani security officials were released by the militants.
The freed Taliban included the top commander from eastern Afghanistan, Mufti
Yousuf, who had been arrested in Peshawar in Pakistan by a team of the
Intelligence Bureau (IB) and who was being held in detention at the IB's
Karachi's office. Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who was in the
custody of the Inter-Services Intelligence, was also handed over to militants
in Razmak, North Waziristan.
Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad is expected to
be released soon. Aziz was apprehended during the military operation against
the radical mosque last year.
The militants had demanded the release of Mullah Obaidullah, a top Taliban
commander, but he had already been handed over to coalition forces in
Afghanistan. This resulted in a deadlock in negotiations, but the impasse was
resolved with the sweetener of the 20 million rupees.
The prisoner negotiations took several weeks, with Mehsud playing from a strong
hand in an attempt to rub the the nose of Pakistan establishment into the
ground. Mehsud used his captives to insist on the release of captives of
similar worth. For instance, he freed two army captains in exchange for some
middle-ranking cadre in Pakistani detention centers. These included some
suspected of involvement in the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto
last December. Non-commissioned security officers were swapped for ordinary
jailed militants, while Azizuddin equated to the group of high-profile Taliban
Mehsud has had Pakistan dancing to his tune over the past few months. At the
beginning of the year, militants ravaged Pakistan with numerous suicide attacks
and then suddenly proposed a peace agreement. Under immense pressure from its
vulnerable domestic political and economic situation, Pakistan accepted the
peace deal and then also accepted the militants' demand for the swapping of
It appears now that Pakistan has very little to play with and the militants
will continue to set the rules of the game. The Mardan attack on Sunday is a
good example of how quickly they can raise the stakes.
In this case, though, the attack was more likely a response to the missile
attack last Wednesday launched by a US drone aircraft in the village of
Damadolah in Bajaur Agency. Fourteen people were killed, including some
al-Qaeda and Taliban figures.
All the same, for now the militants appear to have the government just where
they want it.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com