- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pakistan’s new government yesterday agreed to pull its forces out of a restive region near the Afghan border and allow elements of Islamic Shariah law to be imposed there in return for a promise by local Islamic militants to end a wave of terror and arrest foreign terrorists operating in the area.

The accord came a day after Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte expressed deep reservations about such accords, noting that a similar deal struck by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2006 had allowed Taliban and al Qaeda forces to recruit and rearm.

The United States and Afghanistan charge that Islamist fighters have used poorly policed tribal regions in Pakistan as a staging ground for attacks against Afghan and international forces. Many think al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is holed up somewhere along the border.

But British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, on a Washington visit this week, expressed sympathy for Pakistan’s plight.

In both Afghanistan and the Pakistan border region, “we need to accept that government reconciliation efforts will reach out to people that we are uncomfortable with,” Mr. Miliband said yesterday.

While saying such deals cannot simply allows extremists free rein, he added, “a process of reconciliation will be infinitely more legitimate and effective if it is locally owned.”

The Pakistan coalition government elected in February, dominated by opponents of the president, have made it a priority to make peace with militants in the tribal regions. The government argues that Mr. Musharraf’s aggressive moves sparked a wave of bombings and suicide attacks that shook the country.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman told reporters in Peshawar that the new deal, struck with pro-Taliban fundamentalist cleric Maulana Fazlullah in the northern Swat district, was “negotiated with peaceful representatives, not with terrorists.”

Government officials say they are seeking to strike similar agreements with militant factions in other restive areas, including South Waziristan.

Under the deal, Pakistani troops will be “gradually” withdrawn from Swat and Islamic scholars of Shariah law will be permitted to advise judges in civil cases. More than 200 followers of Mr. Fazlullah will be released within weeks.

In return, the 15-point deal calls on the militants to recognize the government’s ultimate authority, to halt violent attacks, and to turn over any foreign fighters operating in the area. The agreement was silent on the fate of the fiery cleric, the target of an intense military manhunt in recent months.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday the United States is “reserving judgment” on the new pact, acknowledging that previous attempts to negotiate had not curbed militant activity on the border.

Mr. Negroponte was more explicit in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday, saying the Bush administration “has some skepticism about [Pakistan‘s] ability to enforce any such arrangement.”

“There is a lot at stake here, and we have made that point repeatedly,” he said.

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen said Kabul opposed any “exclusive deal” with the Taliban.

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