Truce in Pakistan may just mean leeway for Taliban
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The Taliban and the Pakistani Army signed a truce last month in Swat, the once popular tourist area just an hour north of the capital. But far from establishing peace, the pact seems to have allowed the Taliban free rein to expand their harsh religious rule.
Just days after the truce was signed, a member of a prominent anti-Taliban family returned to his mountain village, having received assurances from the government that it was safe. He was promptly kidnapped by the Taliban, tortured and murdered.
The militants then erected roadblocks to search cars for any relatives who dared travel there for his funeral. None did.
This week, two Pakistani soldiers who were part of a convoy escorting a water tanker were shot and killed because they failed to inform the Taliban in advance of their movements.
On Wednesday, the provincial government signed an accord with the local Taliban leader that imposes Islamic law, or Shariah, in the area, and institutes a host of new regulations, including a ban on music, a requirement that shops close during calls to prayer and the installation of complaint boxes for reports of anti-Islamic behavior. Local residents are skeptical that girls' schools will be allowed to reopen.
Previous accords with the militants in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal areas have effectively created ministates with sanctuaries for Qaeda and Pakistani militants. The Pakistani government argued that the truce in Swat would free up the Pakistani Army, reduce civilian suffering and satisfy popular dissatisfaction with the local judiciary.
Hundreds of thousands of people who have fled in the past six months to camps in surrounding districts or to relatives' homes are staying put, unsure what they would encounter if they dared to return. "The militants have not laid down their arms," said Sher Mohammed, a lawyer, who splits his time between Swat and Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province. "Once you get power in your hands, it is very difficult to withdraw from that intoxication."
The Pakistani government agreed to the cease-fire with an aging Islamic leader, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, on Feb. 16 after the army had already ceded about 70 percent of Swat, a pocket of snow-capped peaks and fertile valleys, to Taliban fighters.
The government said it saw the truce as a way to separate what it considered to be more approachable militants, like Muhammad, from hard-line Taliban leaders like Maulana Fazlullah, his son-in-law, who is a young warlord flush with money and weapons. Fazlullah, backed by the main Pakistani Taliban group and Qaeda fighters, led the fight in Swat against the Pakistani Army in the past year.
Critics of the deal say that it has accomplished nothing like that, and that it has simply handed Swat, once a tolerant, princely kingdom, to the Taliban.
The army has agreed to withdraw from a madrasa in the village of Imam Dheri, where Fazlullah ran an FM radio station before the military occupied it last year.
On Thursday, a spokesman for Mohammed, Molana Izzat Khan, confirmed that he would select judges for Shariah courts, to open on March 15. The provincial government says that Islamic law will satisfy demands for speedy justice, and will not include brutal punishments.
There was no mention of the future of girls' education in the accord on Wednesday, an ominous sign, said opponents of the Taliban. The militants have burned hundreds of girls' schools in Swat in the past year, and banished the students to their homes.
The chief minister of the North-West Frontier Province, Ameer Haider Hoti, said during a visit to Swat this week that the girls' schools would reopen. But the provincial government is strapped for money, and there is speculation that the government cannot afford to rebuild the burned schools.
Moreover, European donors who have budgeted money for development in Swat said there was now hesitation in helping if the Taliban were in effective control.
Despite the truce, most people remain terrified of the Taliban, said Mohammad Amad, executive director of a private aid group, the Initiative for Development and Empowerment Axis. Militants continue to hunt down anyone who backs the government and the army.
He cited the death of a relative, Rahmat Ali, the man who was killed after returning home to his mountain village, Mandal Dag.
Ali was a cousin of Pir Samiullah, a moderate religious leader who took up arms against the Taliban and fought them with a band of followers for three months, killing several hundred militants.
Ali banked on the government's assurances that he would be safe. "He went back because of the stupid claims of the government," Amad said. "He wanted to wind up his business." He owned a transportation company and planned to sell the vehicles, Amad said.
Ali was abducted and held for five days, Amad said. His body was found on Feb. 25.
"There was no skin on his back," he said. "We had advised him, 'You shouldn't go, you shouldn't trust.' "
The Taliban also announced in the local mosque that every family in the village would have to contribute one young man to their ranks, Amad said.
Local and provincial officials appear to be powerless in the face of the Taliban, and many remain in exile in Peshawar.
Some officials have fled to Islamabad, the capital, some as far afield as London.
Those who have ventured into Swat to negotiate the accords with the Taliban have been shown who is in charge.
The district coordination officer, Kushal Khan, was kidnapped with several of his assistants soon after arriving in Swat last weekend to talk to the militants. They were later released.
In some places, the Taliban have established new training camps, villagers said.
Near Mandal Dag, a resident reached by telephone said that the militants were using a government school in the mountains as a training camp for target practice. Young boys were being taught to hit moving objects by shooting at dogs that were let loose on the firing range, the resident said.
An FM radio station that was effective in instilling terror ? Fazlullah's acolytes read out the names of those who faced beheadings on nightly broadcasts ? is still operating, said Adnan Khan, a businessman in Mingaora, the main town of Swat.
But since the cease-fire, the tone has moderated, he said, and the militants' vitriolic denunciations of the government and the army have ceased.
Perhaps to show they are now really in control, the militants have settled on reporting the situation in the villages and discussing Islamic teachings, Khan said.