Islamabad concedes region to pro-Taliban forces

By Linda Waldron

The chief minister of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), Ameer Haider Khan Hoti, on February 16 announced a new peace deal between Islamabad and the Taliban-endorsed Movement for Enforcement of Sharia, or Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM). In return for a cease-fire, the central government has agreed to implement sharia law in the Malakand region.

The Malakand region comprises the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir and Chitral. It has a population of 4.3 million and encompasses more than a third of NWFP. The new accord concedes control of the region to pro-Taliban forces, doubling their recruiting and taxation bases.

Pakistani officials deny that the accord is a victory for the TNSM, claiming that sharia law will bring justice to the Swat Valley. Hoti said: “There was a vacuum … in the legal system. The people demanded this and they deserve it.” Hoti emphasised that the new system will include an appeals process, something not permitted when the Taliban ruled neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistan’s then information minister, Sherry Rehman, declared that the new deal is “in no way a sign of the state’s weakness”.

Relief

The secular Awami National Party (ANP), which currently holds office in the NWFP and whose officials have been targeted by insurgents, also supports the deal. The ANP believes the government cannot defeat the pro-Taliban militias militarily, arguing that the government needs to negotiate with local militants in order to isolate hardliners. One Swat provincial official, Wajid Ali Khan, whose brother was assassinated for his ANP affiliation, said: “I have agreed to put my personal hardships behind me for the sake of peace. We have addressed the core issue ... so now the fighting and other activities should stop.”

The response to the accord among the local population was relief, in some cases jubilation, at the prospect of a cessation of hostilities. Shortly after the truce was announced, a degree of normality returned to Swat, where much of the fighting has been concentrated. People returned to marketplaces and a number of schools reopened after a year’s closure. Some of the hundreds of thousand of refugees who had fled the violence started to return.

The relief expressed by the local people does not reflect popular support for the Islamist militias that control the region. The Pakhtuns share linguistic and cultural ties with Afghans across the border and therefore sympathised with the Taliban-led Afghans when the US military invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. Saudi Arabian-inspired Wahabi-style Islam, however, is alien to Pakhtun tribal traditions. While based on sharia law, tribal custom is renowned for its tolerance and hospitality.

Reign of terror

Having suffered under the brutal rule of Islamists in the border regions, most local people now oppose Wahabism. In the districts controlled by Islamists beheadings, stoning, lashings and amputations of “adulterers”, “thieves” and “US spies” are standard practice. Islamists have executed singers, soldiers and political opponents and exhumed the tortured bodies of opponents for public display. Strict dress codes for men and women and beards for men are enforced. Women are compelled to stay at home. Islamists have also destroyed schools and health centres and banned the sale or playing of music. Nearly 200 girls’ schools have been bombed and set ablaze, denying access to education to tens of thousands of children.

The signing of the Malakand accord has failed to halt the deadly attacks on local people. In the early hours of March 18 the University of Malakand was attacked by 40-60 heavily armed men. They killed four police officers and a security guard and wounded three others. On March 22 and the following day, girls’ schools in Mardan and Peshawar were bombed, damaging buildings and infrastructure.

The fiercely independent tribal communities have begun to resist their pro-Taliban oppressors. While the Islamist parties swept to provincial office in the NWFP during the 2002 general elections, at the February 18, 2008, general election they were unseated and replaced by a new coalition of secular forces.

In some areas the local people are defying the Islamists through armed resistance. Bazitkhel, a tiny village on the Afghan border is mounting an armed defence against both Islamist and criminal violence. On March 22, local villager Hizar Amin Shah told the Washington Post: “I am an educated and peaceful man. I would rather be carrying a book than a gun. These terrorists want to destroy the peace of Pakistan. It is up to us to finish them.”

US attacks

The local people suffering under Islamist rule are innocent victims of US military strategy in the region. Washington has long pressured the Pakistani government to take more aggressive action against the Islamist militias in the border areas. Suspicious of the Pakistani military’s will or capacity to wage war against pro-Taliban forces, the Bush administration conducted regular air strikes on tribal areas of the NWFP using pilotless drones, and on several occasions sent in US ground troops.

The Obama administration has maintained and escalated the Bush policy. The US military has stepped up air strikes inside Pakistani territory using pilotless drones. It is funding counter-insurgency training for Pakistani paramilitary units and is proposing to triple US aid to US$1.5 billion per year over the next five years. Shortly after the Malakand accord was announced, a US missile attack by a pilotless drone killed more than 30 people in the nearby tribal area of Kurram.

The Obama administration has decided that Pakistan is at the heart of its strategy for countering the Taliban forces fighting the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. On March 8, President Barak Obama told the New York Times that the US was losing the war in Afghanistan, hinting at diplomatic solutions. “At the heart of a new Afghanistan policy is going to be a smarter Pakistan policy”, he said. “As long as you have got safe havens in these border regions that the Pakistani government can’t control or reach in effective ways, we’re going to continue to see vulnerability on the Afghan side of the border.” According to the London Telegraph, a senior US diplomat announced: “There will be talks but the Taliban are going to experience a lot of pain first, on both sides of the border.”

What this will mean for the Pakistan side of the border region was indicated by the March 17 New York Times, which reported that Obama and his national security advisers are considering expanding air attacks to the Baluchistan capital of Quetta, as well as authorising regular cross-border ground attacks from Afghanistan using CIA and “special operations” commandos. The NYT reported: “Missile strikes or American commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, American officials acknowledge.”

The NYT also reported: “Several administration and military officials stressed that they continued to prod the Pakistani military to take the lead in a more aggressive campaign to root out Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who are attacking American forces in Afghanistan and increasingly destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan. But with Pakistan consumed by political turmoil, fear of financial collapse and a spreading insurgency, American officials say they have few illusions that the United States will be able to rely on Pakistan’s own forces.”