Pakistani intelligence officials warned their government against considering even a partial withdrawal of security forces from the country's embattled northern tribal region along the Afghan border, amid desperate efforts by the government to salvage a peace agreement with a notorious tribal leader which effectively collapsed this week.
"The last thing our government should do is accept a partial withdrawal of [military and paramilitary] troops from the [Pak-Afghan border] region," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official to CBS NEWS on condition of anonymity.
His remarks followed comments by a senior Pakistani government official who in a an interview with CBS NEWS said "the [new] Pakistani government was considering a gesture involving some [troop] withdrawals to put the peace agreement back on track".
Baitullah Mehsud, the infamous Islamist militant leader who is loyal to al Qaeda and the Taliban, earlier this month agreed to negotiate a ceasefire with Pakistan's new government, elected in parliamentary elections in February. Mehsud's gesture was widely seen as a response to public messages from the leaders the new government, who were previously opposed to President Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's pro-U.S. president, and promised to take a more conciliatory line towards Islamist militants instead of pushing ahead with a series of military operations which were launched in the border region in 2003.
While negotiations continue for a peace deal, discussions between Mehsud's representatives and Pakistani officials progressed to the point where they reviewed the draft of a 15-point peace agreement prepared by both sides.
Mehsud withdrew from the peace talks however when the government refused to accept his demand for withdrawal of all of Pakistan's military troops deployed in the border region as a precondition for him to accept a final deal.
The Pakistani government's immediate reaction to Mehsud, which effectively broke off the discussions, was influenced by advice from senior intelligence officials who warned that withdrawal of troops would only give Mehsud a chance to order his loyalists to occupy positions on the ground, presently held by the Pakistani military.
Another Pakistani intelligence official told CBS NEWS, also on the condition of anonymity, that a peace agreement between the government and Mehsud "was unlikely to happen because he (Mehsud) would not accept anything short of a major gesture. This could be release of (Islamist militant) prisoners in Pakistani custody and of course some withdrawal of forces".
Western diplomats posted to Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, said, news of the Pakistani government even considering the withdrawal of troops, is a powerful reminder of another controversial peace agreement signed between the Pakistani authorities and local Islamist militants in Waziristan - one of the regions along the border - in 2006. Then, the militants used the window of opportunity offered by the lull in fighting to rearm and regroup before returning to fight Pakistani troops more vigorously than before.
By Farhan Bokhari