Monday, February 23, 2009

Truce in Swat Valley

Taliban fighters and Pakistani officials have agreed to a “permanent ceasefire” in the northwestern Swat Valley. The ceasefire announcement came a day after Fazlullah met his father-in-law, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a radical cleric freed by the Government to negotiate peace. Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah, also known as Mullah, announced the ceasefire. They have made commitment that they will observe a permanent ceasefire. Around 1,200 people have been killed and between 250,000 and 500,000 people have fled the valley, which lies within the Malakand division of the North West Frontier Province.
Pakistan is finding it difficult to ensure that the writ of the state runs throughout the territories under its control. People are being killed with frightening frequency on one pretext or the other. Even such solemn occasions as burial processions are not safe as suicide bomb attack in Dera Ismail Khan, leading to the death of 28 mourners, shows. The victims were part of a funeral procession taken out for a prominent Shia cleric, killed by unidentified gunmen a day before. Only two weeks have elapsed since 35 people lost their lives in sectarian violence in this NWFP town. Such incidents, occurring in different parts of Pakistan quiet routinely, are clear symptoms of the country becoming ungovernable.
Western Governments, and many Pakistanis, have been alarmed by the Government’s offer to reinstate Islamic sharia law in Malakand if the Taliban agreed to peace. They fear that a ceasefire could result in another sanctuary in Pakistan where Al Qaida and Taliban militants could move freely, and also worry that Taliban fighters elsewhere in the region wwould be encouraged by the government’s move.
Terms of Agreement
As per the terms of agreement, the Government will set up Islamic courts headed by “qazis” or scholars of Koranic jurisprudence in a large swathe of the province called Malakand. Through this concession, the government hopes to restore its rule in the Taliban-overrun Swat valley. The Swat Taliban are not signatories to the deal, but the big, and questionable, assumption underpinning the agreement is that the TNSM leader, Maulana Sufi Mohammed, will persuade their leader, Mullah Fazlullah, to abandon the path of terror, death, and destruction he has blazed in the past two years.
However, the agenda of the Swat Taliban is bigger than the implementation of an Islamic system of justice, and is linked to that of Beithullah Mehsud, the Taliban warlord in South Waziristan, who in turn is building networks with anti-India Punjabi militant groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed. More generally, the Taliban challenge the very concept of a modern and democratic State.
Support of Taliban
The state of paralysis has been more visible after the clerics controlling the Lal Masjid-Jamia Hafsa complex in Islamabad openly challenged the government, asking for the implementation of the Sharia laws in Pakistan. The then Musharraf regime committed a number of blunders which amounted to allowing those violating the law to gather arms and ammunition and convert the students of the two madarsahs attached to the mosque into jihadis. It was too late by the time the government decided to take them on militarily in July 2007,which contributed to the spreading lawlessness in the country.
Even the virtual surrender to the diktats of the Taliban in both parts of Waziristan could not help restore any semblance of order or authority. The Taliban and other militant elements used the deals they had entered into with Islamabad to strengthen their position to cause death and destruction at will. The result was that Islamabad lost most parts of the NWFP, including the Swat valley, to the Taliban. Now in the Malakand-Swat region, Pakistan has swallowed the same bitter pill in the mistaken belief that it may help cure the paralysis it is suffering from.
Moreover, it is also unclear what laws this system will apply. Individual leaders of the secular Awami National Party-led provincial Government say the agreement does not envisage implementing Sharia laws. Rather, they project it as an innocuous procedural change to meet people’s demand for “speedy” justice under the same laws obtaining in the rest of the country. But the TNSM, which has made no secret of its support and admiration for the earlier Taliban regime in Afghanistan, will want the courts to impose a strict Islamic code of the kind already enforced by the Taliban in Swat.
With the Taliban offering a temporary ceasefire, the guns have fallen silent in the Valley for the first time in months. There are indications that the fate of the latest peace deal, too, will be no different from the earlier ones. The international community cannot afford to remain silent spectators. After all, Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, which must not be allowed to fall into the hands of militants.

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