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Terms Of Peace 'Deal' in Pakistan's Restive Swat Valley Still Being Debated

  • Abubakar Siddique

Pakistanis carry placards during a February protest against military operation in the Swat Valley.

Pakistanis carry placards during a February protest against military operation in the Swat Valley.

Six weeks into a deal between a Pakistani provincial government and an influential cleric that raised hopes of peace in exchange for some form of Shari'a law, there are signs that disagreements over the arrangement and its effectiveness could threaten further implementation.

While Islamic judges, or qazis, have begun their work in the Swat Valley and steps are being considered to expand them into surrounding areas of western Pakistan. But the aging cleric who is a signatory to the cease-fire has signaled dissatisfaction with authorities' commitment to fulfilling their end of the deal.

Moreover, an attack by presumed Taliban fighters on the house of a former cabinet minister under ex-President Pervez Musharraf who hails from Swat has sparked charges that militants are exploiting the cease-fire to retrench and launch further violence.

The deal, announced in late February, was between the government of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and 70-year-old Maulana Sufi Muhammad, a publicity-shy cleric who officials hoped could win his radical son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, over to peace. But cracks on the ground suggest the parties to the deal have vastly different interpretations and expectations of how it should be implemented.

As the leader of the Islamist Movement for the Implementation of Shari'a (TNSM), Sufi Muhammad had campaigned for Shari'a courts since 1995. By granting his wish, backers thought, the government would be able to resolve the complex legal problems of restive Swat Valley and six other districts of the mountainous Malakand region.

For his part, Fazlullah, who has led a Taliban uprising in Swat since late 2007, would step back from an insurgency that has left more than 1,000 dead, displaced more than 200,000, and taken an incalculable toll on civilians.

'Media Hype'

While the peace deal did deliver a tenuous cease-fire, the underlying conflicts that have long plagued the region appear far from being resolved.

President Asif Ali Zardari has yet to sign Nizam-e-Adl (Shari'a) Regulation 2009, which, under the February 16 agreement, is to establish Shari'a courts in Malakand.

The Taliban have complete authority and control. They can take any place they want -- can pick up anybody or capture anyone's house or land. So there are no barriers in their way.
In a recent interview with Sky News TV, Zardari characterized as "media hype" suggestions that Shari'a law is being implemented in parts of Pakistan.

This apparently alarmed Sufi Muhammad, who on March 24 expressed dissatisfaction over the pace of the peace deal's implementation.

"We are not satisfied with how the agreement is being implemented. The first thing in the agreement was that after February 16, the courts would start working under Shari'a in the entire Malakand region. The second main thing was that all the laws that contradict the Koran and the Sunah and are un-Islamic would be repealed," Sufi Muhammad's spokesman, Amir Ezat, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan recently.

"But the situation here is that those laws continue to function as in the past. We have qazis [Islamic judges] being appointed in Swat, but they have no authority to make decisions in light of Shari'a. If such conditions prevail, peace will not be sustainable and the government will be responsible for this," he continued.

Differing Interpretations

Local observers believe that such disagreements could mean continued instability in Swat.

Sher Muhammad Khan was one of the most successful lawyers in Swat, until the insecure situation there forced him to move to the provincial capital, Peshawar. He tell RFE/RL that Sufi Muhammad is trying to pressure the government in order to force Zardari to sign the proposed regulations into law.

Khan, however, says that the two sides have vastly different interpretations of the peace agreement.

"In their minds, the two sides do not agree on the interpretation of the agreement. Sufi's idea is that only the people they choose will serve as judges, and those they oppose cannot not be judges," he said. "I think the two sides didn't discuss such issues and concluded their agreements in haste. Or, if they had agreement, now that is unraveling as they try to implement the agreement. Thus, a wide gulf of disagreement exists between the two."

Nevertheless, supporters of the agreement suggest that it's too early to call it doomed.

Hashim Babar is a central leader of the Awami National Party, which leads the NWFP provincial government. He tells RFE/RL that Zardari's office is currently studying the proposed law and is also trying to allay international concerns about the agreement.

Babar suggests that current Shari'a regulations were merely an adjustment to similar regulations first implemented in 1994 and 1999.

"There is no reason for [Zardari] to refuse to sign it because the Nizam-e-Adl [Shari'a] regulations existed in the Swat and Malakand region earlier," he said. "This is not a paradigm shift or a revolution whereby an old law in the region is giving way to something completely new."

Strengthening Control

Many in Swat feel that the Taliban has already established its authority over the scenic valley that was once Pakistan's top tourist destination. Recent media reports suggest that they have are not demobilizing and have gained control of a major part of the timber and emerald businesses in the region, a situation that could ultimately strengthen their control.

Some locals, however, prefer even a tenuous peace to the uncertainty of the days when civilians were frequently caught in the crossfire between Taliban and the military.

The peace agreement has generated an intense debate in Pakistan. "After the peace arrangement, Swat does not really appear as part of the Pakistani state," Pakistani intellectual Tariq Rahman wrote in the English-language "Dawn" newspaper on April 2. "It has passed into the hands of the Taliban. It is, to all intents and purposes, a Taliban state and this hard reality should sink into the minds of our ruling elite."

According to Pakistani media reports, Taliban militants forcefully occupied and later blew up the house of Swat politician Amir Muqam on April 1. He was a minister in former President Pervez Musharraf's cabinet until late 2007.

Khan suggests that the cease-fire between the Taliban and the military has given locals a respite from the violence at the expense of handing complete control to the militants.

"The Taliban have complete authority and control. They can take any place they want -- can pick up anybody or capture anyone's house or land. So there are no barriers in their way," he said.

Although the cease-fire has emboldened some families to return to their homes and some girls' schools to begin reopening, the agreement has also encouraged conservative clerics across Pakistan's Pashtun border regions to call for similar laws to be implemented in their regions.

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