Now that the Pakistani parliamentary election has been held—and with a rather surprising degree of peacefulness and apparent legality, change is in the air, and a close look at recent dynamics in the tribal regions is called for. Recent events suggest a much more nuanced situation with more room for compromise than the intensity of recent fighting might suggest.
In December, Baitullah Mehsud granted an interview to al Jazeera in which he identified defense as his first priority and accused the Pakistani army of “barbarism” and conducting a “policy of deception” by playing off one tribe against another. He identified his second goal as the establishment of Islamic law throughout Pakistan. For whatever reason, he apparently paid little attention to the standard al Qua'ida goals of "global jihad" or "attacking the far enemy." Underscoring his concern over defense, his spokesman Maulvi Umar told Dawn on Jan 22 that they would “target sensitive installations in Islamabad, including the headquarters of intelligence agencies, if the military does not stop its operation.” After several weeks of intense military clashes, he “told the government that he could halt terrorist actions if the key commanders and militants arrested by security forces were released,” according to Daily Times (Feb 1). On Feb 15, the Taliban in one region promised to suspend violence during the election and were reportedly prepared to participate in peace talks. On the 19th two tribes in North Waziristan reached agreement with the local government to cooperate in opposition to extremism (Daily Times, Feb 19).
Numerous reports have indicated widespread resentment among the tribal population over Pakistani army behavior. For example, Daily Times reported on Jan 18 that “Mehsud tribe elders on Thursday refused to facilitate peace efforts in South Waziristan Agency until “troops stop pounding areas.” The very next day, Dawn reported collateral deaths of civilians resulting from military attacks. Fighting in the “formerly stable” Darra Adam Khel in late January resulted in the departure of 70% of the local population, according to Daily Times (Jan 26). Following the shelling of Taliban positions in South Waziristan, local residents accused troops of “targeting civilian areas, according to Daily Times (Jan 28). On Feb 1, residents were reported to have protested against the government relief effort as being ineffective (Daily Times, Feb 1). A senior government official was reported by Daily Times on Feb 4 to have recognized that “You can only convert the sympathies of the public from these guerrillas by providing what the government should be providing: justice, security, clean hospitals.” The same report quoted a South Waziristan lawyer observing that “The government has nothing for the tribal people but troops, missiles and cobra gunship helicopters.” Zanroor Afridi, JI deputy secretary general of NWFP, accused the government of “gross violation of human rights in the tribal areas” by bombing civilians and forcing internal migration (Frontier Post, Feb 9).
Locals also blamed the Taliban. On Jan 17, the Jamaat-i-Islami leadership decided, for example, to contact Taliban activists in swat and Waziristan to ask them to give up violence (Dawn, Jan 18).
One of the most prominent dynamics in recent evidence is the use of the fighting as a negotiating tactic. The rebels have evinced considerable willingness to compromise; the electoral results may well bring a positive response from the government. It is not clear exactly what the long-term rebel goals are, but it is clear that they are concerned about protecting themselves, are being pressured by the local population to compromise, are having trouble presenting a unified front, and are adopting a flexible pose. Opportunities for initiatives to move from the battlefield to peaceful political competition now appear to exist.