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Prospects For Stability In Pakistan Uncertain Despite Peace Deal

Thousands have fled the scenic Swat Valley because of the recent violence.
The latest plan to bring security to Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) calls for distributing 30,000 weapons to allow villagers in the region to defend themselves against the terrorist threat.

The effort, announced by NWFP Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan on February 22, would also include the establishment of a 2,500-strong elite counterterrorism police that would help stem the rising Taliban insurgency.

Experts say the measures are being implemented as a safeguard in case a recent peace deal falls through between the provincial government and a hard-line Islamist movement with some ties to the Taliban in Swat Valley, a district of NWFP's mountainous Malakand region.

But some locals feel that the plan to arm civilians and strengthen the police is too little, too late to bring security to the region.

Afzal Khan, whom locals refer to as "lala" -- or "elder brother" in Pashto -- is an 82-year-old Pashtun nationalist politician who has emerged as a symbol of the resistance to Taliban extremism in the Swat Valley.

Speaking to RFE/RL from his home in a remote village in the restive valley, Khan notes that law enforcement has completely broken down, due to the Taliban's strategy of targeting police in their efforts to gain control of the region.

"The military is not trained for guarding the streets. They will carry out an operation and will control a certain area and will then return to their bases and posts," Khan says.

"Now if they want to form an elite force, it will take time. But their current challenge is to protect their cities [from the insurgents]. The first responsibility of any government is to protect the life and property of its citizens," he adds.

"They should have been very proactive in fulfilling their responsibility from the outset. It seems that it won't take a month or two -- nobody here has any idea how long it might take."

Shari'a Agreement

Islamists loyal to the Movement for the Implementation of Shari'a (TNSM) and NWFP officials agreed a peace deal on February 16.

Afzal Khan says no one knows how long the process will take.
That agreement, whose implementation President Asif Ali Zardari has made contingent on the establishment of security in the region, intended to improve the already existing Shari'a courts in Malakand region, has largely been seen as appeasing local militants.

However, the provincial government has insisted that the agreement can help separate local militants from the larger Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan -- a hard-line conglomerate of Pakistani Taliban factions aligned with Al-Qaeda.

A week after the agreement, its fate is still not clear. Although the Taliban has agreed to partially lift its ban on girls' education in the NWFP, it has yet to establish a foundation for future security by agreeing to a permanent cease-fire or to lay down its arms.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Amir Ezat Alam, a spokesman for the TNSM in Swat, said the atmosphere of fear there is gradually being replaced by hope. He expressed hope that the Taliban will soon agree to a permanent cease-fire.

"Our real motive was to implement Shari'a in the Malakand region -- this was the aim of all Muslims in the Malakand region and it has been fulfilled," Alam said. "So nobody among them [the Taliban] can claim to be opposed to it."

Taliban Divisions

According to Reuters, a Pakistani Taliban commander in Bajaur tribal region, Faqir Mohammad, on February 23 announced a unilateral cease-fire. The move is widely seen as linked to the ongoing peace efforts in neighboring Malakand.

TNSM leader Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a local cleric who led 10,000 volunteers to fight alongside the Taliban following the United States' invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, was the key figure behind the Malakand deal. Fresh from his "peace caravan" to Swat Valley last week, Mohammad is now also claiming to help calm the situation in the neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

But Mohammad is not the only leader in what has become Pakistan's front line in its struggle against the Taliban. His son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, is widely considered to be the leader of Swat Valley's pro-Taliban militants, and as such has the power to lead them toward peace.

The Taliban has allowed girls to return to school.
On February 15, Fazlullah announced a 10-day cease-fire, although his armed followers still patrol the valley and he has yet to announce a permanent cease-fire. Mohammad met with Fazlullah last week to discuss the implementation of the peace deal.

But Fazlullah's potential role as a peacemaker is already facing challenges. This week, in an apparent effort to forge Taliban unity in Pakistan, three Taliban factions led by Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, and Mullah Nazeer decided to form a common leadership council in the Waziristan tribal region, located between southern NWFP and the Afghan border.

The Malakand peace deal has also generated international concern, with some media comparing the situation in Pakistan's tribal areas controlled by Taliban militants with that of neighboring Afghanistan under the Taliban regime in the 1990s.

But Zahid Khan, spokesman for the governing Awami National Party, says that his party is already reaching out to Western diplomats in Pakistan to convince them that the deal in not a concession to the Taliban.

"They look at this whole thing as if it is like [recreating] the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. We are trying to make it clear to the diplomats that we are not trying to imposer a new law in Pakistan," Khan says.

"We have concluded this agreement within the scope of the Pakistani law and constitution. We will try not to add to the concerns of the international community."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.