New Pakistan government will talk to militants: NYT

March 22nd, 2008 - 10:11 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Pervez Musharraf

New York, March 22 (IANS) Pakistan’s new coalition leaders, set to take charge, have indicated they would rather negotiate with militants than use military force, a policy change causing consternation in the US, the New York Times reported Saturday. American officials fear the new rulers’ stance reflects a softening towards the militants just as President Pervez Musharraf has given the Bush administration a freer hand to strike at militants using pilotless Predator drones.

A review of the US-backed policies of the discredited Musharraf follows Pakistanis’ belief that the recent surge in suicide bombings is retaliation for three Predator strikes this year.

Talking to the New York daily, Asif Ali Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), who are set to form the next government, struck a more independent note from Washington and sought to repackage the conflict with militants in a way more palatable to Pakistanis.

“We are dealing with our own people,” Sharif was quoted as saying in the report. “When you have a problem in your own family, you don’t kill your own family. You sit and talk. After all, Britain also got the solution to the problem of Ireland. So what’s the harm in conducting negotiations?”

Zardari, who is likely to assume the mantle of prime minister after getting elected to parliament later, said the war against the insurgents has to be redefined as “Pakistan’s war” for a public that resents the conflict as being pushed on the country as part of an American agenda.

Washington opposed past negotiations arguing that short-term peace deals between the militants and the Pakistani military would help the former gain time to fortify themselves.

Negotiations with the militants, a retired Pakistani general told the NYT, are likely to involve a ban on non-Pakistani militants - like Afghans, Uzbeks and Chechens - coming from southern Afghanistan into Pakistan, in return for reduced operations by the Pakistani army in the tribal areas.

Zardari and Sharif, however, did not specify which militant groups they would talk to nor on the possible quid pro quo.

Sharif, a conservative Muslim, refused to say whether he would negotiate with Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader suspected to be behind the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto last December.

Washington may have little choice but to adjust to the new policies, said a retired Pakistani Army brigadier, Mehmood Shah, who was in charge of security in the tribal areas.

The new government, Shah told NYT, will go with the popular sentiment that it was time to “keep a distance from the US”.

Sharif even disfavoured foreign aid. “We should generate our own resources,” he said.

Both Zardari and Sharif stressed that the new parliament would be consulted on the strategy toward the insurgency, a sharp distinction from Musharraf who decided policies unilaterally.

Change is also expected in the leadership of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

The PPP and the PML-N have accused the agencies of backing and using some militant groups to pressure India and Afghanistan. Some of those groups, becoming more radicalised, have recently turned their fury back on Pakistan.

Ijaz Shah, head of the Intelligence Bureau and a confidant of Musharraf, resigned this week, NYT reported. His replacement will be named by the new prime minister.

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