This is easily the most unenviable time in modern Pakistan's history. Within days of a Sharia law-for-peace deal between Taleban-style insurgents and the country's newly-elected government in the beleaguered Swat Valley of northwest Pakistan, a Geo TV reporter was shot dead. Mosa Khan Khel was in the region to cover a peace rally led by Taleban's Sufi Mohammad*, the man behind the deal and father-in-law of the powerful head of Taleban in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, whose nod to the deal is much needed for any sustainable peace in the region.
Khan Khel joins the league of several journalists, politicians and civilians who have lost their lives in the insurgency-ridden NorthWest.
It is hard enough for a country -- under pressure from the Americans to clamp down terror and from post-Mumbai India to stamp out militancy -- to finally concede that parts of its country are hotbeds for terror groups and slipping out of control. And now, they have a deal with the devil on their hands.
The deal (re)establishes the Sharia code of Islamic law in the region in exchange for a ceasefire. The government and NW authorities have defended the deal, arguing that the people in the region want peace and earlier regimes had already agreed to similar autonomous governance. Ironically, in the last parliamentary polls, the people of the troubled Northwest, including Swat, had voted in favor of secular parties. According to this NYT report:
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 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.
It is ultimately up to Pakistan to decide how it wants to achieve peace and prosperity. What is more worrying than the imposition of Sharia law, is the submission of a democratic government to militant Taleban sympathizers in exchange for peace in the midst of what is perceived as the "war on terror". This is not just about autonomy. This is about losing ground on the basic principle of the kind of nation Pakistan wants to see itself emerging as. Indeed, sheer military might has hardly ever solved the world's problems, but such "peace" accords in this region have been brokered before and have failed to deliver.
If this PBS report by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy last year is anything to go by, Swat could well be another step toward the gradual Talebanisation of Pakistan:
On August 25th, the Pakistan government -- after years of side stepping -- finally banned the Pakistani Taliban and identified it as a "terrorist" organization freezing its assets and bank accounts. The Taliban retaliated by issuing a warning in all the major cities: a spate of suicide bombings is now on the cards. For the 160 million Pakistanis, a new front on the war on terror has developed, right in their backyards. This is no longer America's war, this is now very much Pakistan's war.
While acknowledging the "excesses of American firepower in Afghanistan, and of late in Pakistani territory", Tufts University history professor Ayesha Jalal argues against such a deal in her piece in Pakistan's Dawn:
The call to negotiate with those who are fomenting fitna [disorder] has arisen because the Pakistani state has in recent years surrendered a lot of ground to the forces of disorder. If talking to armed militants has become to some extent a matter of pragmatic necessity, such negotiations cannot be conducted by undermining the legitimacy of parties and popular representatives that won the confidence of the people in the north-west frontier regions as recently as the elections of February 2008.
The recent assassination attempts on Awami National Party leaders and killings of elected representatives by the extremists are instances of a lethally armed minority holding to ransom the will of a democratically inclined majority. To concede to such intimidation would be to acquiesce in a virtual coup by religious extremists.
President Obama might have got it right when he singled out Pakistan (and Afghanistan) as critical to peace in the region. Thus far, America's reaction seems to have been cautious at best. While the State Department says it is following the developments, Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said in an PBS interview that Swat was troubling:
We're troubled and confused, in a sense, about what happened in Swat, because it is not an encouraging trend. Previous cease-fires have broken down. And we do not want to see territory ceded to the bad guys, and the people who took over Swat are very bad people.
The success of the deal can well bring temporary peace to the region, much to the relief of the locals caught in the crossfire. But it doesn't appear to bode well for America's war in Afghanistan that calls for an ally that can control not concede these regions. Neighboring India will need to secure its borders real well if it has to settle for a chaotic Pakistan in future.
Blog buzz on Pakistan:
Global Voices Online has a great collection of blog commentary
All Things Pakistan hopes the government play its cards right this time
The Pakistani Spectator argues that the ultimate solution has to be a single government writ across the entire nation.
[*According to this Rediff.com story, here's who signed the deal:
Actually, the peace deal is not with the Taliban, it is with a defunct and banned outfit older than the Taliban. The Pakistan government's peace agreement is with Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the amir of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. Sufi's outfit was defunct, but he has revived it with this peace deal and made it legitimate. The TNSM is older than the Taliban and came into existence in 1992.
Sufi has been an anti-government agitator for many years.]