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Doubts Over Implementation Of Shari'a Law In Pakistani Region

  • Jeffrey Donovan
  • Abubakar Siddique

Members of a pro-Taliban delegation attend a meeting with Pakistani government officials in Peshawar on February 16

Members of a pro-Taliban delegation attend a meeting with Pakistani government officials in Peshawar on February 16

Islamists and officials from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have reached an agreement to impose Shari'a law in the Swat Valley and the surrounding Malakand region, in a bid to ease an uprising by militants.

The deal is unlikely to be welcomed by the United States, which fears Pakistan is appeasing local pro-Taliban forces. And many observers have expressed skepticism about whether the agreement can hold and restore peace in the volatile region bordering Afghanistan.

Religious conservatives in Swat had long fought for Shari'a to replace secular law.

On February 16, four decades after the formerly princely states of Swat and Dir were absorbed into the Pakistani federation, they achieved their goal after talks with officials in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

In Peshawar, Hashim Babar, a senior leader of the governing Awami National Party, told RFE/RL that most local political parties endorsed the measures adopted by the provincial government in a grand meeting, or jirga.

Babar also said that the deal has the blessings of President Asif Ali Zardari and the powerful military establishment. But he said the deal stipulates peace as a pre-condition for implementing Shari'a law in the region.

"Our province has agreed to [the implementation of Shari'a law], but we have said that this system will be only implemented when we have a ceasefire in Malakand in general, and in Swat in particular. And that the militants will not violate it in any way," Babar said.

"So if it takes two days, or a month or even two hours but once we have a complete ceasefire, this Nizam-e Adal [system of justice] will be implemented."

Under the agreement, authorities are to set up so-called qazi courts to apply Shari'a law and provide speedy justice in the Malakand region, of which Swat is a district.

Past Peace Deal Failures

But past deals with regional militants -- including in Swat -- have rarely worked out -- which begs the question: can this agreement prove any different?

Ijaz Khan, a professor of international relations at Peshawar University, says he doesn't think the deal with be "much different" to other deals in the past.

"They had announced the deal yesterday and have also announced a ceasefire. Even after the announcement of that yesterday, one school was blown up by the extremists. The army is still there and they have not stopped their action," Khan said.

Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister of the NWFP, told reporters today in Peshawar that the security forces would stay in "reactive" rather than "proactive" mode after the agreement. "They will only retaliate," he said.

Hoti added that all laws in conflict with Islam and Shari'a would be abolished. "Those who took the path of violence for this cause should abandon violence after today's historic decision," he said.

"They should now play their role in restoring peace in Swat."

Disparate Militias

The problem is that the fragmented nature of the insurgency makes restoring and enforcing a peace difficult.

Provincial authorities say their agreement is with Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a local cleric who led 10,000 volunteers to fight alongside the Taliban following the United States' invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Muhammad, who in the 1990s first led the local push to impose Shari'a, has guaranteed the deal will be enforced in Swat's Malakand District and parts of the bordering Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

But Muhammad is not the only insurgent leader in what may be the world's most dangerous region.

His son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah is widely considered to be the leader of the pro-Taliban militants in Swat. In 2004, he stared as a radical radio host, but Fazlullah later developed links with Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the powerful Tehrik-i-Taliban, an umbrella group of pro-Taliban factions in the NWFP and FATA.

In 2007, the Pakistani military launched an operation against Fazlullah but it proved unsuccessful.

On February 15, Fazlullah announced a 10-day ceasefire in anticipation of this week's deal. Khan, the university professor, says it's unlikely the agreement will lead to any lasting peace.

"Maulana Fazlullah, who is leader of the militants active today, is connected with the [Taliban umbrella organization] Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan," Khan says.

"How are they going to break-up their relationship with that? Then in the past two three years, there have been a large numbers of target killings. I do not believe that they [the Taliban] have agreed to lay down arms."

Recent history also counsels skepticism.

After Pakistan's new civilian government took over in April, it concluded two peace deals with both Muhammad and Fazlullah. But the one with Fazlullah soon collapsed as the provincial government blamed him for giving in to pressure from Mehsud's group.

The insurgency has since claimed thousands of lives in Swat. And hundreds of thousands have fled the region.