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Monday, February 05, 2007

Peace in FATA: ANP can be counted on

Peace in FATA: ANP can be counted on
Hassan Abbas
On January 10, the Awami National Party (ANP) won a critical electoral battle in Bajaur Agency. The election marks the revival of a party that appeared to be hibernating during the recent Talibanisation process. The military’s hidden alliance with religious political parties made it difficult to effectively tackle the Taliban threat in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States. After 2003, the military opted for a show of brute force in the tribal belt which created more problems than it solved. The ANP was routed in national and provincial elections in 2002 because anti-Musharraf and anti-American sentiments were at their peak leading to support for the religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). The mistakes committed by the United States in Afghanistan in terms of not providing enough financial resources for reconstruction and overwhelming dependence on military options to tackle extremists also contributed toward the marginalisation of the liberal and progressive forces in the region, including the ANP.Nevertheless, the potency of Pashtun nationalist forces should not be underestimated. Given their chequered history and traditional support base, they are potentially an effective and viable political force to challenge the MMA in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).In the present political context, the ANP is actively challenging the MMA and is critical of Musharraf’s policies in the tribal belt. Despite official obstacles, Asfandyar visited tribal areas in November 2006 to hold political consultations with his supporters to the dismay of pro-government tribal elders. If Afghan President Hamid Karzai respects and trusts anyone in Pakistan, it is the ANP and Asfandyar Wali. The idea of a regional Pashtun peace jirga (that was discussed at the recent Bush-Musharraf-Karzai meeting in Washington) was the brainchild of the Asfandyar-Karzai dialogue. Asfandyar had articulated his support of this idea when he visited Washington in early 2006. The Pakistani government, however, is wary of this concept despite its commitment to the United States to undertake such an exercise since it fears that such an arrangement may lessen the its direct role in the Pashtun areas. Islamabad, therefore, is now backtracking by delaying and modifying the spirit of the regional jirga idea.In Pakistan, it is difficult to challenge the military-intelligence establishment. Asfandyar, however, continues to do so, and recently he argued that the Pakistani government, instead of introducing new political or economic reforms in the tribal areas, has turned the region into a battlefield by using it as “a sanctuary for their guests” (September 28, 2006). Responding to Pakistan’s recent proposal to fence and mine the Pak-Afghan border in an effort to control Taliban’s movements, he bluntly called it a conspiracy to divide the Pashtuns.A Way OutIn a telephone interview with Asfandyar Wali on January 13, he argued that a Pashtun peace jirga involving Pashtun nationalists, civil society actors and religious players from both sides is the last hope for the region. He interpreted the recent ANP victory in the Bajaur elections as a bright spot in the overall troubling scenario and made a case for allowing liberal political parties to operate and function in the tribal areas. This can only happen, he emphasised, if the Political Parties Act is extended to FATA.In reference to the causes of conflict in the tribal areas, he lamented the fact that only pro-government maliks (tribal elders who are on the government payroll) are engaged and mushiraan (“people’s” maliks who are financially independent) were completely ignored. This led to a failure in resolving the crisis in FATA. Furthermore, he thinks that Pakistan should have distinguished between the pre-9/11 foreigners who are by now well settled in the area and the post-9/11 foreigners that came in to find a sanctuary.He also believes that fundamentalist forces are now battling for influence and territory in Sindh and Punjab provinces. He was very confident that the “ANP is in a position to take on MMA in NWFP and tribal areas, but we are not in a position to take on the establishment.” When asked what his expectations are from the international community and the United States, he replied: “the international community should ensure a level playing field for all political forces in the region.”Critics of ANP argue that supporting Asfandyar and his party might lead to the cessation of the NWFP from Pakistan and even to the unification of Pashtun areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is unlikely since the Pashtuns of Pakistan are well entrenched in the political system and have been integrated socially and culturally into the national fabric of the country. Another relevant criticism fired at the ANP is its provincial or nationalist identity. Since its inception, however, the ANP has always had some representation in the National Assembly and the Senate and has never called for a separate homeland. What it has asked for is more provincial autonomy, which is within the restraints and provisions of the Constitution.The ANP as a political party, however, needs better organisation. To be able to pursue its liberal and progressive agenda it will have to join hands with other secular forces in the NWFP as well as in other parts of Pakistan. The Bajaur by-election was a test case for the ANP. The seat was vacated by Haroon ur Rashid, an MMA representative who resigned his seat in protest against the bombing of a madrassa in which 80 people were killed. The ANP won because the MMA boycotted the election and other political parties (the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League-N) supported its candidate. Still, it was a success since a member of Pakistan Muslim League-Q, supported by President Musharraf’s followers, was also a candidate.The crux of the matter is that Asfandyar Wali and the ANP are potentially capable of reversing the Talibanisation trend in the tribal areas provided that the establishment recognises the high stakes involved, such as the growing influence of religious extremists in the region and the increasing number of suicide attacks within Pakistan itself. One may also hope that U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ policy statement declaring “success in Afghanistan is our top priority” leads to significant financial investment in the development of Afghanistan, crippling the appeal of the Taliban in the region (January 18). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s latest announcement that President Bush would ask Congress for $10.6 billion in aid for Afghanistan will, if approved, be a step forward for peace and stability in the region.The Statesman Peshawar

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