Why Pakistan Plays ‘Let's Make a Deal'

Islamabad is about to cut another deal with the country’s tribal leaders. These agreements rarely last long and appear to have helped no one besides terrorists and hardened militants. But Washington should support the deal making—at least for a little longer.

John Moore/Getty Images Moment of calm: A peace agreement could give Pakistani forces a chance to recover from a year of brutal violence.

The Pakistanis are making deals with tribal leaders again. Islamabad now appears to be in the final stages of protracted negotiations with leaders of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, one of seven semiautonomous areas along Pakistans border with Afghanistan. The recent history of these negotiations has not been a happy one. By nearly all accounts, Taliban and al Qaeda have taken full advantage of the breathing space in Pakistans tribal areas to execute attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and beyond. American critics have every reason to ask whether Islamabads latest deal is precisely the sort of appeasement that might reduce violence in Pakistan in the short term, but which in time promises an even more dangerous insurgency and terrorist menace.

Nor should Pakistanis or Americans kid themselves: In a few months, perhaps sooner, this deal will fall apart. Even if the tribal leaders intended to live up to their obligationsa doubtful propositionthey arent up to the task of expelling well-armed, battle-hardened militants.

So, should the Bush administration move fast to put an end to Pakistans constant deal making with militants? No. Because despite appearances, Islamabad is not stabbing Washington in the back, acting irrationally, or being willfully ignorant to the threat posed by militants. Although Washington has reason to be wary of any truce blessed by Pakistani politicians and Islamist militants, there are valid reasons why Washington should support the deal makingat least for now.

First, although the specific conditions of the latest deal are not yet public, the Pakistani government appears to have learned something from its mistakes. In the past, Islamabad failed, for instance, to recognize that a deal must only be made with tribal leaders, and instead blundered in signing arrangements directly with militant organizations. This time, rather than negotiating with militants directly, tribal elders have been the primary interlocutors. Moreover, the Pakistani government now understands it must negotiate from a position of strength. This deal comes at the end of a lengthy Army-enforced blockade of the Mehsud territorieshome to notorious militant Baitullah Mehsud, the accused mastermind of Benazir Bhuttos assassinationthat forced many tribesmen from their homes. By demonstrating the punitive capacity of the state, government negotiators probably strengthened their position vis--vis the tribes.

Second, the deal will likely have important tactical benefits for the Pakistanis. Under its apparent terms, a cease-fire is supposed to last for the next several months. The new Pakistani government could use some breathing space after what has amounted to a tumultuous political season, complicated by partisan skirmishing, lingering questions about the future of President Pervez Musharraf, and the inexperience of many new leaders in national and provincial capitals.

Third, a period of relative calm might also give the Pakistani Army and Frontier Corpsparamilitaries assigned to the tribal areasjust a little more time to recover from an extremely taxing year of unprecedented violence and morale-bruising setbacks. Although 90 days is hardly enough time to turn these troops into effective counterinsurgency forces, a number of recent U.S.-supported initiatives to train and equip units of the Frontier Corps as well as to establish border coordinating centers along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier would benefit from even a few months of relative calm.

Finally, the cease-fire could offer a range of new development projects the chance to get started in parts of the country that have been plagued by violence. Certain small-scale projects such as school rehabilitations and traveling health clinics can move relatively quickly to help the Pakistani government (and international donors) establish stronger relations with remote tribal populations such as those in parts of South Waziristan. Government access is a small but important step toward more ambitious development programming aimed at reducing poverty, popular alienation and, in time, militancy.

For Washington, there is no question that every time Pakistan cuts a deal with its militants there is a danger for the United States. The critical calculation for U.S. policymakers is whether the tactical gains from Islamabads deal making, combined with Washingtons desire to start out on the right foot with Pakistans new civilian leadership, outweigh the risks to U.S. security interests. At the moment, such a risk still appears worth runningif just barely.

Of course, there are red lines that Washington shouldnt allow Islamabad to cross. Above all, Washington cannot let an imperfect deal get in the way of an all-too-rare shot at arresting or eliminating top al Qaeda leaders who have found safe haven in the rugged terrain of the Pakistani-Afghan frontier. Beyond that, Washington will need to judge for itselfover weeks, perhaps monthswhether the deal contributes directly to an unacceptable surge in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan or whether a distracted Pakistani government is failing to enforce the terms of the accord that made it tactically beneficial at the outset.

Washington should not sit by and wait to see how thisor anydeal plays out. It should monitor developments closely and begin coordinating with Islamabad in anticipation of the deals collapse, focusing on support and intelligence sharing for Pakistani operations designed to inflict aggressive punitive strikes against South Waziristans militants and terrorists. And, just as importantly, Washington should engage Islamabads military and civilian leaders in a detailed discussion about the next deal. It should include clear provisions against cross-border attacks in Afghanistan. It should also require tribal leaders to put up significant collateralin the form of real property or cashas a demonstration of serious intent.

Because Pakistan has no purely military solution to the security problems of the tribal areas, the only thing more certain than the breakdown of this latest deal is that Islamabad will eventually negotiate again. Washington needs to recognize this reality and the fact that it doesnt need to be in the room to have a seat at the table.