Pakistan makes a Taliban truce, creating a haven

Posted in Terrorism , Pakistan | 17-Feb-09 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

Members of a banned Islamic group that pushed for Islamic law leaving Timargarh for Mingora, the capital of Swat, on Tuesday.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: The government announced Monday that it would accept a system of Islamic law in the Swat valley and agreed to a truce, effectively conceding the area as a Taliban sanctuary and suspending a faltering effort by the army to crush the insurgents.

The concessions to the militants, who now control about 70 percent of the region just 100 miles from the capital, were criticized by Pakistani analysts as a capitulation by a government desperate to stop Taliban abuses and a military embarrassed at losing ground after more than a year of intermittent fighting. About 3,000 Taliban militants have kept 12,000 government troops at bay and terrorized the local population with floggings and the burning of schools.

The accord came less than a week before the first official visit to Washington of the Pakistani army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to meet Obama administration officials and discuss how Pakistan could improve its tactics against what the American military is now calling an industrial-strength insurgency there of Al Qaeda and the Taliban militants.

The militants have also made deep gains in neighboring Afghanistan, where the United States is sending more troops.

Pakistani government officials insisted the truce with the Taliban and the switch to the Shariah, the Islamic legal code, were consistent with the Constitution and presented no threat to the integrity of the nation.

But the truce offered by the Taliban, and accepted by the authorities, rebuffed American demands for the Pakistani civilian and military authorities to stick with the fight against the militants, not make deals with them.

Under the terms of the accord, the chief minister of the province, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, said that Pakistani troops would now go on "reactive mode" and fight only in retaliation for an attack.

Announced by the government of the North-West Frontier Province after consultation with President Asif Ali Zardari, the pact echoed previous government accords with the militants across Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas in North and South Waziristan.

Those regions have since become a mini-state for Qaeda and Taliban militants, who are now the focus of missile strikes by remotely piloted American aircraft. On Monday, what was thought to be a drone strike in Kurram, a separate area close to the Afghan border, killed 31 people, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

Analysts are now suggesting that the drone strikes may be pushing the Taliban, and even some Qaeda elements, out of the tribal belt and into Swat, making the valley more important to the Taliban.

Speaking in India on the last leg of his trip to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, the Obama administration's special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, did not address the truce directly but said the turmoil in Swat served as a reminder that the United States, Pakistan and India faced an "enemy which poses direct threats to our leadership, our capitals, and our people."

Pakistani legal experts and other analysts warned that the decision by the authorities would embolden militants in other parts of the country.

"This means you have surrendered to a handful of extremists," said Athar Minallah, a leader of a lawyers' movement that has campaigned for an independent judiciary. "The state is under attack; instead of dealing with them as aggressors, the government has abdicated."

Shuja Nawaz, the author of "Crossed Swords," a book on the Pakistani military, said that with the accord, "the government is ceding a great deal of space" to the militants.

But some Pakistani officials have recently argued that a truce was necessary in Swat because the army was unable to fight a guerrilla insurgency and civilians were suffering in the conflict.

A former interior minister, Aftab Ahmad Sherpao, told the parliamentary committee on national security this month that Shariah ordinances should be introduced to "calm the situation."

Sherry Rehman, the government information minister, said the deal should not be seen as a concession. "It is in no way a sign of the state's weakness," she said. "The public will of the population of the Swat region is at the center of all efforts, and it should be taken into account while debating the merits of this agreement."

In legislative elections a year ago, the people of Swat, a region that is about the size of Delaware and has 1.3 million residents, voted overwhelmingly for the secular Awami National Party. Since then, the Taliban have singled out elected politicians with suicide bomb attacks and chased virtually all of them from the valley. Several hundred thousand residents have also fled the fighting.

Many of the poor who have stayed in Swat, which until the late 1960s was ruled by a prince, were calling for the Shariah courts as a way of achieving quick justice and dispensing with the long delays and corruption of the civil courts. The authorities in the North-West Frontier Province, which includes Swat, argued that the Shariah courts were not the same as strict Islamic law. The new laws, for instance, would not ban education of females or impose other strict tenets espoused by the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The new accord, they said, would simply activate laws already agreed to by Benazir Bhutto in the early 1990s when she was prime minister. Similarly, the principle of Shariah courts in Swat was also agreed to by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. In both cases, the courts, though approved, were never put in place.

A Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official did not have permission to speak publicly, said that the government's acceptance of the courts was an attempt to blunt efforts of the Taliban to woo Swat residents frustrated by the ineffective judiciary.

"The Taliban was trying to take advantage of the local movement and desire for a judicial system," the official said. The official insisted that the Obama administration, informed of the accord, "showed understanding of our strategy."

On Monday, a White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said only, "We have seen the press reports and are in touch with the government of Pakistan about the ongoing situation in Swat."

Provincial officials said the accord in Swat was struck with Maulana Sufi Muhammad. He is the father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, a deputy to Baitullah Mehsud, who is the head of the umbrella group for the Taliban in Pakistan.

Muhammad is often described as more benign than his son-in-law, but the ranks of their followers and their lines of authority are fluid and overlapping.

In 2001, he took thousands of young men across the border into Afghanistan to fight jihad against the Americans. After his return he was imprisoned by Pakistani authorities.

He was released last April after agreeing to denounce violence and work to bring peace to the area.

Despite the insistence that the new legal system in Swat was consistent with existing civil law, some feared that the accord was an ominous sign of the power of the militants to spread into the heartland of Pakistan, including the most populous and wealthiest province, the Punjab.

"The hardest task for the government will be to protect the Punjab against inroads by militants," wrote I. A. Rehman, a member of the Human Rights Commission, in the daily newspaper, Dawn.

"Already, religious extremists have strong bases across the province and sympathizers in all arenas: political parties, services, the judiciary, the middle class, and even the media," he wrote. "For its part, the government is handicapped because of its failure to offer good governance, guarantee livelihoods, and restore people's faith in the frayed judicial system."