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Signing Of Pakistan Shari'a Legislation Prompts Fears Of Taliban Expansion

Taliban fighters patrol outside the Swat Valley near Buner district.
Taliban fighters patrol outside the Swat Valley near Buner district.
Sher Mohammad Khan's sentiments about his former home epitomize the hopes and fears of many Swat Valley residents.

"Presently the Taliban have ultimate control and authority. The state does not exist here. All the state institutions are completely paralyzed and they are not functioning at all," Khan says.

"The question now is what we're going to see in the future. For now, we are neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but we only hope that both sides will honor their promises [about peace]."

Khan, a lawyer, fled the violence and insecurity of Swat Valley by moving to Peshawar, capital of Northwest Frontier Province.

A peace deal inked in February between the provincial government and local Taliban has been touted as a workable solution that can bring peace to the valley. But its introduction of Shari'a law onto the scene has been harshly criticized by the West, while neighboring Afghanistan has expressed severe misgivings.

After Pakistan's central legislature unanimously approved Nizam-e-Adl (Shari'a) Regulation 2009, a key piece of legislation in the peace deal, President Asif Ali Zardari finally signed it into law on April 13. Zardari had initially vowed not to endorse the legislation until the violence that marred the region had abated.

The Taliban has largely stuck to the cease-fire it agreed to when the deal was struck, giving Zardari reason to believe that condition has been met, but the Taliban fighters have not disarmed nor broken up their organization.

Taliban Expansion

And now, having lost Afghanistan as safe haven and their sanctuaries in Pakistani tribal areas that have come under constant attack by U.S. drones, there are signs that an emboldened Taliban intends to use Swat as a base from which to expand their control into neighboring regions and even into the heart of Pakistan.

Last week provided an example of this when scores of Swat Taliban fighters moved into neighboring Buner district. Locals resisted but gave in after fighting left 13 people dead, and the Taliban established control. Soon afterward, the shrine of a Sufi Muslim saint was closed, and the Taliban are now asking locals to help them enforce Shari'a by sending their young men into their ranks.

And on April 14, "The New York Times" reported that the Taliban has made inroads to the east into Pakistan's most prosperous and populous province of Punjab by striking an alliance with local militants -- and putting the stability of the entire nuclear-armed Muslim state at great risk.

Locals celebrate the signing of Shari'a law in Mingora, Swat Valley.
Pakistani analysts argue that the presence of Islamist militants in Punjab is nothing new, as extremist organizations have been based there for decades. The real development, they argue, is that militants are exerting their influence and expanding the insurgency to the region.

Proponents of the peace deal and the new law argue that the new Shari'a law is merely an adjustment to similar regulations first implemented in 1994 and 1999. They suggest that the new law will not lead to the establishment of a radical theocratic regime in Pakistan akin to that in Afghanistan under the Taliban in 1990s. Many, in fact, believe the law will eventually help the government restore its authority in Swat.

Peshawar-based human rights activist Kamran Arif, however, says that the new law "completely changes the complexion of the legal system" and that its implementation is a "is a sad day for human rights in Swat."

"Basically they think -- the perception is that they have won a battle and this ordinance has come into force because of their struggle -- their arms struggle," Arif says. "So they are not going to let it go there. They will, of course, recruit more people. And once they are not militarily engaged in Swat, obviously, they are free to start activities in other parts of the province."

Will Of The People?

Neighboring Afghanistan has expressed fears that the peace deal will strengthen extremists in the region and bolster their plans of escalating violence in Afghanistan during an election year.

The United States provided its most pointed criticism of the situation on April 14. "The administration believes solutions involving security in Pakistan don't include less democracy and less human rights," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Gibbs said the Shari'a law's signing "goes against both of those principles," and the administration is "disappointed that the parliament didn't take into account the legitimate concerns around civil and human rights."

Officials in Peshawar remain adamant that the development will help restore stability to Swat, however. Northwest Frontier Province Education Minister Sardar Hussain Babak, a native of Buner district, has expressed hope that the new law would contribute to stability even as the provincial government sent police reinforcements to Buner to deal with the recent Taliban threat.

A local tribal militia patrols Buner district.
"The National Assembly represents the whole country," Babak says. "In reality, the backing of this law from the legislators tells us that they have backed our peace deal. We appreciate this because it was a popular demand in the whole Malakand region. We hope that its implementation will further strengthen the environment of peace in the region."

And Akhonzada Chitan, who represents the restive Bajaur tribal district in the Pakistani parliament, argues that his country's legislature has a right to make laws that respond to popular demands and aspirations.

Chitan says that Western opposition to the new law because of its perceived implications for human rights holds little weight considering the lack of criticism for draconian colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) laws that are still followed in the tribal areas more than a century after their implementation.

"If you look at FCR, most of its clauses are a violation of human rights," Chitan says. "Some of the clauses are so cruel that their imposition, even over wild animals, will be considered harsh. But so far the international community has failed to ask Pakistan why this black FCR law is still being imposed on the tribal people."

Khan, the lawyer who fled Swat, says that in the current situation the people of Swat may be blinded by hope, and that large-scale killings, displacement, insecurity, and fear have prompted residents to accept peace at any cost.

"We are stuck in a narrow alley," Khan says. "If we see a ray of hope, even at the cost of fooling ourselves, we are going to follow it and do whatever might lead to peace."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Najib Aamir contributed to this report from Peshawar
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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.

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