On February 11, 2008, Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan Tariq Azizuddin went missing, along with his guard and driver, in the tribal district of Khyber Agency while travelling from Peshawar to Kabul. He is the most high-profile captive taken by the Taliban. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi has denied any link between efforts to secure the release of Tariq Azizuddin and those to obtain the release of Sufi Muhammad.(10)
The Taliban have also sought to deny any role in the kidnapping of the diplomat. However, the facts prove otherwise. It was reported that the Pakistani government is engaged in negotiations with the kidnappers through the mediation of Sufi Muhammad. The Urdu newspaper Roznama Khabrain reported that during the talks, the Taliban put forward many demands, including one for the release of several militants.(11)
On April 19, 2008, a video confirming that Tariq Azizuddin was in Taliban custody was aired on television channels. After the release of the video, a spokesman of the Foreign Office in Islamabad confirmed that the government ''is using all possible sources to secure his release, and talks are ongoing.''(12)
Against this backdrop, the diplomat may be released any time now. The Pakistani government has not disclosed the names, ranks, and affiliation of militants whose release is being bartered for the freedom of Tariq Azizuddin and for peace in the Taliban-controlled region on the border with Afghanistan.
Significantly, Azizuddin went missing within a few days of the capture of Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah in a military operation in Pakistan. A day after the kidnapping, the website of Pakistan's popular GEO Television Network quoted an unnamed Arab journalist based in Islamabad as saying that in exchange for freeing the Azizuddin, the Taliban were seeking the release of Mansoor Dadullah, brother of slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.(13)
Legal Cases against Red Mosque Cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz
The talks were always focused on specific issues, for example, the release of diplomat Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistani soldiers held by the Taliban, or Islamist leaders in Pakistani jails. What expanded the scope of these talks was the victory of secular political parties in the February elections. The victorious parties, which blamed the violence in Pakistan on President Musharraf's policy of fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in cooperation with the West, had advocated a policy of reconciliation with extremists. Since coming to power, these parties initiated a policy of dialogue with all Taliban groups.
A day before the release of Sufi Muhammad, reports appeared in the media saying that Tariq Azizuddin's kidnappers had demanded the release of 12 top Islamist leaders, including Maulana Abdul Aziz, the cleric arrested while fleeing in a burqa during the 2007 military operation on his Red Mosque and the Jamia Hafsa madrassa in Islamadab; Taliban commander Mansoor Dadullah; Sufi Muhammad; five fighters of the Afghan Taliban; and others. According to a report, most of the militants proposed for release by the Taliban in exchange for their freeing of Tariq Azizuddin are supporters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud.(14)
Currently, there is speculation over when Azizuddin will be freed and whether or not the Pakistani government will release Mansoor Dadullah and Maulana Abdul Aziz in exchange, and whether the timing of the two militants' release will be modulated in a way to distract the public attention from the exchanged deal. There are indications, however, that the government is moving in the direction of releasing Maulana Abdul Aziz.
Recently, the High Court in Islamabad granted bail to Maulana Abdul Aziz in four cases. With this, the radical cleric, with powerful connections inside the Pakistani military, has now been granted bail in 19 of the 27 cases filed against him. His release is expected as early as in May 2008, when the court will hear the next batch of his bail applications.(15)
The Gilani government has announced its plan to abolish the 1901 law so that these tribal districts could be integrated into Pakistan, possibly as a fifth province. While the Pakistani Taliban, who virtually control the region, welcomed the decision, they have made two demands: Pakistan must distance itself from the U.S. war on terror, and a system of shari'a must be implemented in the region.(16)
The government is engaged in talks with a delegation of tribal elders nominated by Baitullah Mehsud. As a precondition for the talks, and at the time of Sufi Muhammad's release, Baitullah Mehsud asked his fighters not to engage in provocative actions that could mar peace in the FATAs as well as in parts of the North West Frontier Province.(17)
The nature of the talks between the government and Baitullah Mehsud's representatives came to light in a 15-point draft agreement. Some of its points included:(18)
a) The Political Administration and the Mehsud tribe will jointly monitor and report the likelihood of the presence of training camps for militants and of the preparation of terror attacks.
b) If the Mehsud tribe fails to eliminate suspicions of militant training in the area, the government will have the right to take action as per tribal customs and traditions, and the Frontier Crimes Regulation.
c) The exchange of prisoners of both sides will take place after the signing of this agreement. The government will release all prisoners from the Mehsud tribe.
d) Government troops will begin phased withdrawal from the region of Mehsud tribe after the agreement is signed.
It appears from the draft agreement that the talks are focused on Baitullah Mehsud's tribe – i.e. in the tribal districts of South and North Waziristan. It is also clear that the militants loyal to Baitullah Mehsud have wider control across the region than some of the Taliban groups in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The overall objective of the talks is to restore peace across the region, possibly through shared control as evident from the demand to jointly monitor the likely presence of terror camps in the region.
The negotiations are seen as a bargaining process by the Taliban. During the talks the Taliban delegation sought the release 250 militants from Pakistani jails in exchange for about 80-100 government officials and soldiers.(19)
It appear that the government, indeed, is making concessions: it was reported that it gave cash compensation worth more than 200 million Pakistani rupees to over 500 individuals for the Taliban fighters killed or wounded during the military operation begun by Pakistani troops in Waziristan in 2004. According to a report, about 150 senior Taliban commanders in Waziristan received huge undisclosed sums.(20)
By the last week of April, there was a deadlock in the talks over the issue of withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the region, leading to the suspension of the negotiations by Taliban. According to a report, the delegation of tribal elders returned from the talks, saying that the government was not agreeing to the troops' withdrawal.(21)
The Taliban are also demanding that they should be free to launch attacks across the border against U.S. and NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan – a demand that will transform the tribal districts into a military training base for the jihadist fighters, and all the more so if the Pakistani troops were to return to barracks.(22)
The suspension of the talks has focused on the nature of the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the region, also highlighting in the process the Taliban ambition to control the region without the presence of Pakistani troops. However, it is not clear whether the Taliban are demanding total withdrawal of the troops, or whether they will allow some kind of Pakistani military presence. For now, NWFP Chief Minister (executive head) Ameer Haidar Hoti has said that the demand for the withdrawal of troops is not correct, pleading for ''flexibility on the part of the Taliban in order to establish peace.''(23)
Even if the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan reached a deal with the government, there are many militant groups that act as per their own agenda. For example, a group called Lashkar-e-Islam recently asserted its control in the tribal district of Khyber Agency, vowing to spread Islam across the world.(24)
Similarly, in the tribal district of Mohmand Agency the local Emir of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has established control, recently issuing an agenda for the implementation of the Islamic shari'a .(25)
And in late April, a significant development took place in the town of Darra Adam Khel in the NWFP, indicating the type of change that is coming in as a result of the government's policy of dialogue with the Taliban. As soon as the Pakistani troops withdrew from this area, Taliban fighters came rushing in. They parked their vehicles in front of a local politician's house, leaving a message that he should guard them until they complete setting up their control centers. The Peshawar-based Urdu-language newspaper Roznama Mashriq reported: ''The tribal elders are describing this new development to be the result of the government's new policy of establishing peace in these regions.''(26)
It appears though that the Pakistani government has succeeded in halting suicide bombings, possibly as a result of the talks with the Taliban groups. It is also evident that the Taliban have the upper hand, pursuing their own agenda and achieving success in a key demand for – at an early stage in the talks – a mini-shari'a state within Pakistan.
(10) Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), March 23, 2008.
(11) Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), April 24, 2008.
(12) Roznama Jang (Pakistan), April 20, 2008.
(13) Geo TV (www.geo.tv/urdu.asp), accessed February 12, 2008.
(14) Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), February 21, 2008.
(15) Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 29, 2008.
(16) Roznama Jang (Pakistan), March 31, 2008.
(17) Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 24, 2008.
(18) Roznama Ausaf (London), April 24, 2008.
(19) Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 28, 2008.
(20) Roznama Jasarat (Pakistan), April 30, 2008.
(21) Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 29, 2008.
(22) Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 28, 2008.
(23) Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), April 30, 2008.
(24) Roznama Khabrain (Pakistan), April 18, 2008.
(25) Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 17, 2008.
(26) Roznama Mashriq (Pakistan), April 23, 2008.