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World News
Pakistan Moves to End Policy on 'Good Taliban'
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 19 Dec 2014 20:17:33 EST
A Pakistani student protests in Islamabad on Friday with a candle and a banner against Tuesday’s Taliban attack on a Peshawar school.
A Pakistani student protests in Islamabad on Friday with a candle and a banner against Tuesday’s Taliban attack on a Peshawar school. Associated Press

ISLAMABAD—In the wake of the Peshawar school massacre, some U.S. and Afghan officials are beginning to express optimism that Pakistan may finally be changing its decadeslong policy of supporting jihadist groups.

Pakistan’s military for several months has been moving away from the policy, under which these militant groups have long been used by the country’s spy agencies and security establishment against India and Afghanistan.

Then Tuesday’s attack by Pakistani Taliban gunmen at the school in Peshawar led Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to declare that there would be no more “good Taliban,” an acknowledgment of the country’s ambivalent attitude that has nurtured some militant groups even while fighting others. All militants “would be dealt equally with an iron hand,” Mr. Sharif said.

The prime minister also lifted a seven-year-old moratorium on the death penalty, for terrorists only, following the attack. On Friday, two convicted militants were executed, said officials at the Faisalabad prison where the death sentence was carried out.

It isn’t clear, however, to what extent the military, which controls security policy independent of the civilian government, will adhere to the new zero-tolerance approach to jihadists.

In recent months, it seemed to apply only to many of the groups based on the western border with Afghanistan, including the Pakistani Taliban. The country hasn’t seen a move against militant outfits focused on India to the east, or some of the groups that target Pakistan’s own Shiite minority.

 A Pakistani woman cries at a vigil on Friday inside the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in remembrance of the victims of the Peshawar school massacre.
A Pakistani woman cries at a vigil on Friday inside the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in remembrance of the victims of the Peshawar school massacre. European Pressphoto Agency

“We need to do much more to allay the lingering suspicion of the idea that there is a drive against militants without discrimination,” said Farhatullah Babar, a parliamentarian from the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party.

Mr. Babar said that a decision by a Pakistani court on Thursday to grant bail to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 attack in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people, “sent a message that perhaps some militants are more equal than others.” Pakistan says that it will appeal the bail ruling.

Some officials in Washington and Kabul say that Pakistan has shifted its calculus under army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, who took office a year ago and in June began an operation against militants in the North Waziristan tribal area, which borders Afghanistan and was previously a sanctuary for Pakistani, Afghan and al Qaeda jihadists. Gen. Sharif—who isn’t related to the prime minister—visited the U.S. for two weeks last month for talks with military officials.

During the trip, Gen. Sharif made a commitment to not distinguish among extremists, said a senior official in the Obama administration.

“I don’t expect it to all happen at once,” the official cautioned. “This is almost a generational movement toward a new paradigm. These signs, if accurate, are very promising. But I wouldn’t read completely into them as a change in dynamic.”

`I don’t expect it to all happen at once. This is almost a generational movement toward a new paradigm. These signs, if accurate, are very promising. But I wouldn’t read completely into them as a change in dynamic.’

—a senior official in the Obama administration

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., said that the Obama administration had been through previous cycles of optimism.

“Informed skeptics in Washington are waiting to see whether change is real this time or are we witnessing another bubble of hope,” said Mr. Haqqani.

In Kabul, the new government of Ashraf Ghani has embraced Pakistan, offering unprecedented cooperation, and asked in turn for Pakistan’s help in ending the Afghan insurgency.

“There is probably a small but influential group of leaders who have changed,” said a senior Afghan official. “President Ghani sees this as an opportunity and is alive to the danger of our two countries allowing this moment to slip away.”

A day after the Peshawar attack, Gen. Sharif flew to Kabul to meet Mr. Ghani, who agreed to take action against Pakistani Taliban bases in eastern Afghanistan. This level of cooperation would have been unthinkable in the past, a Pakistani official said, and reflects the new outlook of the two men. Officials said there is discussion of joint action against militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, a wild zone long used as a sanctuary.

Supporters of the Muttahida Quami Movement attend a rally on Friday in Karachi, Pakistan, against the Peshawar school massacre.
Supporters of the Muttahida Quami Movement attend a rally on Friday in Karachi, Pakistan, against the Peshawar school massacre. European Pressphoto Agency

Pakistan’s pro-jihadist policy was first used in the 1980s, when the country, with full U.S. backing, supported Islamist warriors fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal, Pakistan turned the jihadists on India in the 1990s, especially in the disputed region of Kashmir. By the mid-1990s, Pakistan promoted the emergence of a new Islamist movement in Afghanistan, the Taliban.

However, after the September 2001 attacks in the U.S., Islamabad formally sided with the U.S. That alliance split the Pakistani jihadist movement, with a more radical wing turning on its own country, becoming the “bad Taliban,” under the influence of al Qaeda, which made Pakistan its base after 2001. Other “good Taliban” groups based in Pakistan have continued to fight only in Afghanistan or India.

The Pakistani Taliban, formed in 2007, took control of the tribal areas and then the Swat Valley in the northwest, before a military operation pushed them out of Swat in 2009. That was followed by an operation in South Waziristan the same year. It wasn’t until June this year that the military moved to clear North Waziristan.

Still, doubts linger over claims of a new policy. Many militants including Afghan insurgents, were able to flee North Waziristan before the offensive, Pakistan security officials concede, but they insist that any who remain are being targeted.

“There is no change,” said Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University. “Pakistan defines its threat as coming from those militants who cannot be persuaded to kill in Afghanistan or India.”

—Adam Entous in Washington and Qasim Nauman
in Islamabad
contributed to this article.

Write to Saeed Shah at saeed.shah@wsj.com



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