"We're Taliban Everybody here is Taliban... We won't accept anything short of the Sharia system."
-- Saifur Rehman, a resident of Matta in Swat,
on February 18 at the Taliban victory parade.
Rewarding militancy and supping with the enemy has become an entrenched Pakistani habit. In its most recent manifestation, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government hammered out a deal – widely described as a "surrender" by Pakistani commentators – with the banned Tehreek- e- Nafaz- e- Shariat- e- Mohammadi (TNSM). On February 16, the provincial government formally announced the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law), known as the Nizam-e-Adl Regulations 2009, in the Malakand Division and Kohistan district.
NWFP Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti told a Press Conference after chairing a jirga (council of elders) in provincial capital Peshawar: "The provincial government in consultation with all political parties, Sufi Muhammad and ulema [scholars] with the approval of Federal government introduced changes in the 1999 Nizam-e-Adl Regulation. Today I announce promulgation of Nizam-e-Adl Regulation (Amended) 2009…" He added, somewhat wishfully, "The regulations will be implemented in Malakand following the return of peace and restoration of the writ of the government."
The jirga was attended by a 29-member delegation of TNSM, leaders of political and religious parties, NWFP cabinet members and senior bureaucrats. Hoti stated, further, that the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation 2009 had been approved by President Asif Zardari following consultations with the TNSM representatives.
The provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain declared, "After successful negotiations... all un-Islamic laws related to the judicial system, those against the Quran and Sunnah [custom or manner of life], would be subject to cancellation and considered null and void,". He read an ‘announcement’ signed by three TNSM leaders and six NWFP government officials that declared "null and void" all laws "contrary to Quran and Hadith." The announcement also requested the TNSM chief to co-operate with the government for the restoration of peace in Malakand and promised that the Nizam-e-Adl Regulations would be implemented in the region after peace was fully restored.
The agreement was reached after extensive discussions between the militants and the NWFP government in Peshawar on February 16, 2009. The Taliban in Swat had declared a unilateral 10-day cease-fire the night before the talks commenced. Earlier, on February 14, they had released Chinese engineer Long Xiaowei, who was abducted on August 29, 2008, as a ‘goodwill gesture’. In response, the Chief Minister stated, "We will reciprocate the militants’ 10-day armistice with a cease-fire for good." Hoti also said troops would remain in "reactive mode" instead of a "proactive mode" and would not target anyone unless threatened. However, he added, the Army should be removed only after peace has been restored.
[The ceasefire was
indefinitely extended on Feb 24 by Taliban and Pak troops have announced
military operations in Bajaur for four days on Feb 25 -- Ed]
The Nizam-e-Adl Regulations 2009 institutionalises a framework of Islamic laws and henceforth cases would be heard by ‘religious authorities’ (Qazis) and decided in accordance with Islamic injunctions in Malakand Division (comprising seven districts of Swat, Buner, Shangla, Dir Upper, Dir Lower, Chitral and Malakand) and the Kohistan district of Hazara Division in the NWFP. Islamist extremists in Swat have long attempted, violently or otherwise, to impose Sharia and replace the secular jurisprudence which came into force after the former princely state was absorbed into the Pakistani federation in 1969.
Chief Minister Hoti has clarified that the Nizam-e-Adl Regulations 2009 were in line with the Constitution of Pakistan, as these were the amended form of the regulations proposed for Malakand in 1994 and 1999. He said the new system had been devised to provide easy and speedy justice for the people and that both the Qazi and Police departments would be held accountable for any delay. He announced that all civil cases would be resolved within six months and all criminal cases would be decided within a maximum of four months. For its implementation, Hoti said, a task force comprising the Federal Secretary of the Interior, the NWFP Chief Secretary, the provincial presidents of the Awami National party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Law and Home Secretaries, would be established.
The ‘deal’ in Swat constitutes an unambiguously desperate move to escape militancy in the Frontier. Such capitulation by the state can only increase the space for radical Islam and the operational capacities of militants who are already the de facto power across large swathes of Pakistan. More worryingly, all stakeholders, including the military, were reportedly taken on board before the agreement was signed. While the Army is on record as having stated that the situation in Swat was "not satisfactory", its spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, disclosed that the military had been asked to "back off".
Reports indicate that month-long high-level discussions preceded a final decision arrived at during confabulations, in which President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the NWFP Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani and Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti participated. In fact, President Zardari reportedly noted that, if peace could be achieved by introducing the Nizam-e-Adl Regulations 2009, these should be implemented immediately. Within the province, all political parties, including the PPP, the ANP, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur Rehman faction), the Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid, have endorsed the deal.
On the ground, intense violence continues to afflict the NWFP, although the guns have fallen silent in Swat since the ‘peace deal’ was announced. 572 people, including 274 civilians and 240 militants, have already died in the province in 2009 (till February 19). Approximately 2,944 people, including 1,021 civilians, 281 Security Force (SF) personnel and 1,642 militants, were killed and 1,748 were wounded in more than 2,183 incidents across the NWFP through 2008.
The death count in 2008 registered more than a doubling over 2007, the year which had witnessed the sweeping transformation of the Frontier into a major battleground for radical Islam. While six out of the eight suicide attacks in 2009 occurred in the NWFP, 32 of the 59 suicide attacks in 2008 were located in the province. All the eight
districts where the Sharia is to be implemented are varyingly affected by violence and subversion, with Swat the worst affected.
People in Swat and elsewhere in the Frontier continue to be subjected to immense brutality. Nearly 200 girls’ schools have been bombed, an oppressive religious code is maintained with savage and public punishment, and those who defy the Taliban have been beheaded in public. Protracted fighting between the SFs and the Taliban has forced thousands of civilians to flee the Swat valley. While there are no official displacement figures, credible independent reportage indicates that up to 800,000 of the valley's 1.8 million people may have fled.
In a certain sense, the truce helps Islamabad and the Taliban. While the Taliban get de jure status and legitimacy, Pakistan’s embattled troops, who are already over-extended by a multiplicity of insurgencies, will get a breather. Reports indicate that SF personnel have refused to be posted in places like Swat, disregarding even the lure of higher salaries and more incentives, or the threat of punitive action. Javed Aziz Khan reported in The News on February 1, 2009,
"A large-scale desertion has been witnessed in Frontier Police and Frontier Constabulary since they became the prime target of terrorist attacks… Recruitment in Swat Police was announced on many occasions in the past year but very few candidates turned up for jobs. The rest decided not to join till peace is restored in the Valley. The government even relaxed the criteria for these jobs but the tactic didn't work."
The intensity of fear is palpable. 600 commandos of the newly set up Elite Police Force refused en bloc to be posted in Swat
district, saying they would prefer sacking to being made "scapegoats." As one unnamed source disclosed to The News, "The services of around 600 commandoes of Platoon No-1 to Platoon No-13 were placed at the disposal of
district Police Officer of Swat. They were supposed to join duty during the first week of January. However, none of them left for the troubled town." Parents of these commandoes had also reportedly refused to send their sons to Swat where Policemen have been slaughtered and strangulated publicly in the recent past. The NWFP Inspector General of Police, Malik Naveed Khan, stated, on January 29, 2009, that Police were being recruited from other provinces after officials in Swat resigned because of the Taliban threat.
With many of its activists and leaders having become victims of the Taliban, the ruling Awami National Party may also get some respite. According to the ANP central secretariat in Peshawar, the party has lost more than 100 activists in Swat Valley alone during the last seven months. Among the latest victims was Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) Alamzeb Khan, who was killed in a bomb blast on February 11, 2009, in Momin Town in capital Peshawar.
In fact, ANP legislators, including two provincial Ministers, five MPAs and a Member of National Assembly from Swat had stopped visiting their constituencies after the Taliban scrapped the 14-point peace agreement with the provincial government in July 2008. There have been casualties and material losses for the ANP in other districts of the Frontier as well.
Almost all the ANP leaders, ministers and legislators are on the militants’ hit-list. With free movement of its cadre curtailed and governance affected, the ANP, which carries the secular legacy of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, more popularly known as ‘Frontier Gandhi’, is now ‘forced’ to deal with the armies of radical Islam. It is significant to recall, in this context, that the ANP secured 48 seats of the total 124 seats in the provincial assembly elections of February 2008; by contrast, the Islamist parties, under the banner of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) secured just 14 seats. Democratic validation, however, has little relevance when political representatives are staring down the barrel of a gun.
Whatever relief Islamabad, the Army or the provincial government and political parties may currently experience, however, promises to be fleeting. By implementing the Sharia, the government has not only granted legitimacy to the outlawed TNSM, but has helped it to come over-ground and regain its influence in Malakand, which was waning as a result of the proscription since January 2002 and the extended incarceration of Sufi Mohammed and many cadres. The TNSM’s legitimization is fraught with grave dangers for any residual democratic potential. A few days before the ‘peace deal’ Sufi Mohammed declared,
"From the very beginning, I have viewed democracy as a system imposed on us by the infidels. Islam does not allow democracy or elections… I believe the Taliban government formed a complete Islamic state, which was an ideal example for other Muslim countries. Had this government remained intact, it could have led to the establishment of similar Islamic governments in many other countries."
Sufi Mohammad, a former Jamaat-e-Islami leader, had earlier led a revolt in Swat in the 1990s, for the introduction of Sharia. He was arrested after leading thousands of extremists to fight alongside the Taliban against US-backed forces in Afghanistan in late 2001. Pakistani authorities released him in April 2008 in an attempt to placate the Taliban militants led by his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah alias Fazal Hayat, in Swat. Peace will now largely depend on the ailing Sufi Mohammed’s ability to persuade Fazlullah to end his armed campaign. Doubts, however, persist on whether he has adequate influence over Fazlullah, who has gradually developed strong and intricate linkages with Taliban factions outside the NWFP and with al Qaeda, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Too much faith, moreover, is being reposed in the idea that the Nizam-e-Adl Regulations 2009 will usher in peace in the NWFP. If peace could be achieved by a mere reversal of legal systems or changes in administrative systems, Islamabad could easily replicate the idea across the country.
Worse, Sharia is conceptually open to subjective and widely divergent interpretations, unleashing significant potential for conflict between rigid sectarian factions. Among the very first conflicts could, for instance, emerge on who is to define or interpret Sharia. Disagreement is also unavoidable when the avowedly secular ANP will be pitted against forces like the TNSM and Taliban, who espouse their own vision of radical Islam.
Even as a beleaguered Islamabad fumbles about in search of an appropriate strategy, its misguided adventures appear, regrettably, to have US acquiescence. This ‘peace deal' has significant implications for the United States, especially on how it can prosecute the campaign against terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The United States said, on February 18, that it will wait for results before offering any comments on the peace deal. "We're in discussions or we're in contact with the government of Pakistan, and we'll see what the results of their policy will be," State Department’s Deputy Spokesman, Gordon Duguid, disclosed.
On February 17, Duguid had noted that the introduction of Sharia was "within the constitutional framework of Pakistan" and that it was not "an issue for anyone outside of Pakistan to discuss." Such a guarded reaction suggests that Islamabad had kept the US in the loop. However, Richard Holbrooke, the Special US Representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, while expressing concern, stated, "We are troubled and confused in a sense about what happened in Swat, because it is not an encouraging trend." He noted, further, that "previous ceasefires have broken down and we do not want to see territory ceded to the bad guys. The people who took over Swat are very bad people."
There is a school of thought in Washington and elsewhere that erroneously distinguishes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban or between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Taliban.’ Successive US Administrations have tended to be indulgent towards the ‘moderate’ Taliban, subscribing to Pakistan’s reasoning that they can be won over and co-opted, unlike the ‘bad Taliban’, who are irreconcilable. The spectrum of tolerance for Pakistan’s delinquency since 9/11 has, moreover, gradually widened under the flawed rationale that applying greater pressure on Islamabad would compromise US operations in Afghanistan.
Along with Pakistan's troublesome decision to release rogue nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan from detention, progressive Talibanisation represents a clear warning to the Obama administration that Pakistan is susceptible to what the US Joint Forces Command describes is "rapid and sudden collapse." While history has proven repeatedly that the appeasement of militants doesn't work, continued acceptance of Pakistan’s ‘terrorist blackmail’ can only lead to an undermining of the declared US policy of zero tolerance for terrorism, and a sinking into what Robert Blackwill described is "a swamp of moral relativism and strategic myopia."
The ‘peace deal’ in the NWFP is best seen as part of the Taliban’s strategic game-plan in its advance across Pakistan. As in the past, the Taliban will use this cease-fire to regroup, re-arm and consolidate its position in territories under its control, even as it works to extend its influence in contiguous territories. Peace processes only serve to embolden the radical forces, be it in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere. Far from ‘ushering in peace’, such deals have, in the past, provided the Taliban-al Qaeda combine secure safe havens and an opportunity to expand the sphere of their jihad. A parallel system of governance, including a harsh system of ‘justice’ and ‘tax’ collection, already exists under the command of the Taliban in the Swat Valley. The latest moves by the government will merely institutionalise these aberrations.
The deal in Swat clearly rewards militancy and demonstrates Islamabad’s growing inability or lack of will to contest Islamist extremism. Ominously, it confirms a deeper and more dangerous reality: the Pakistani state is vulnerable to the extremist blackmail. Ceding spaces to Islamist extremists in Swat sets a precedent that the Taliban will now seek to replicate elsewhere in Pakistan.
The Bajaur chapter of the TNSM has already demanded immediate implementation of Sharia in the Agency, promising, in return, its co-operation to establish the complete ‘writ of the state’, and accepting the Army’s presence in the region ‘till reconstruction work was completed’. TNSM’s Bajaur unit chief Ismail Muhammadi made this demand on February 15, while reacting to the Malakand pact, declaring, "After people's major demand of the enforcement of Sharia is met, the restoration of peace and purging the area of miscreants will become easier and the TNSM will be in a position to help establish writ of the
Embedded in the Malakand pact is Islamabad’s duplicity and desperation. A day before the Swat deal, President Zardari had warned that Taliban was trying to "take over the state of Pakistan", after having established its presence in "huge amounts of land" much beyond the tribal areas that form the group's original strongholds. "We have weaknesses and they are taking advantage of that weakness… we are fighting for the survival of Pakistan." But this declaration came even while the Swat deal was being hammered out with the extremists. Strategic confusion is now, inevitably, pervasive.
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