The Swat valley is a sadly ironic location in which to conclude a peace deal. For centuries its breathtaking alpine beauty made it one of the subcontinent’s premier resort destinations. Many of my own family have honeymooned here.
But all of that began to change from 2004 when a previously obscure religious student calling himself Maulana Fazlullah and his followers started attacking schools, music shops and other businesses considered "un-Islamic". Fazlullah promoted a harsh, conservative brand of Islam similar to that practiced by the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan, and it was no surprise when he decided to join Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Taliban’s umbrella network in Pakistan.
By October 2007, Maulana Fazlullah’s forces had effective control of much of the Swat valley.
Even today in his clandestine radio broadcasts Fazlullah makes frequent threats against a wide range of ordinary people, from policemen merely seeking to enforce the law to schoolgirls whom he threatens with brutal attacks for daring to seek an education.
Over the past two years, conflict in the Swat valley and other tribal areas has displaced 450,000 people. The UN believes the number will soon rise to 600,000. Hundreds if not thousands have been killed, but exact numbers will never be known because no systematic attempt to catalogue casualties has ever been attempted.
It was in the context of this sort of carnage that news came last Monday of a peace deal between local religious leaders and the North Western Frontier Province Government. For many locals, this news was enormously welcome. In the streets of the Malakand region, villagers distributed sweets, a common expression of joy usually reserved for celebrations at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
But, as a local woman reminded the respected political analyst Shuja Nawaz, many remain fearful of the repercussions of this latest political development.
"We have lost the battle against the militants. We have seen day by day how government and army have [been]weakened, how they have finally been reduced to talk and to deal … Someone said to me the other day, ‘Don’t complain, because the one you complain to will be your enemy’."
This peace deal is not the first of its kind, nor is it the only one to be reached in the Swat valley. Indeed, a similar peace agreement negotiated between the NWFP Government and the Taliban in May last year barely lasted a few days before fighting resumed in earnest.
Confusion surrounds the current peace deal between the North Western Frontier Province Government and the Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TSNM) — the "Movement for the Establishment of Islamic Law". All that is known is that under this "Nizam-i-Adl Regulation" Sharia (Islamic) law will supplant the secular laws of the local, state and possibly federal governments of Pakistan inside the Malakand division, the region which includes the Swat valley.
In expressing his support for the arrangement, President Zardari has affirmed that the "writ of the [Pakistani] state" must not be challenged, but the peace deal now gives religious groups a window with which to counter the laws of the state with the law of God, which they claim to represent.
For now at least, TSNM and its leader Sufi Mohammad profess to be working on behalf of the Government. Mohammad says he hopes to convince Fazlullah — who happens to be Mohammad’s son-in-law — to put down his guns. "The system of Islamic justice will not be the system of the Taliban," Mohammad has claimed. "It will have proper courts and police and administration," Mohammad declared at a public rally last Wednesday.
But the TSNM’s interpretation of Islam is essentially consistent with that of the Taliban, and Sufi Mohammad played a key role in establishing the Taliban in Swat. In fact, he also rallied young men to fight alongside the jihadi movement in Afghanistan following the United States’ invasion of that country after the September 11 attacks.
When I interviewed members of the Taliban in Swat last year, they told me that their ultimate aim is to create a "true" Islamic state governed by the Sharia as they understand it. That goal is shared by Sufi Mohammad’s TSNM.
Mohammad has been a conservative religious activist in the Swat valley region since the late 1980s when he left Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakistan’s largest, and relatively moderate, religious political party. As early as 1995 he was demanding the establishment of Sharia law in Swat.
Mohammad spent close to seven years in jail after his arrest in 2001 for his role in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan against the US. It was during his imprisonment that his son-in-law Fazlullah took over the running of the TSNM. Mohammad was eventually released last year, but only after publicly renouncing violence and expressing support for women’s education and immunisation for children, things that are opposed by the Taliban.
Of course, Mohammad’s dramatic reversal could all have been a result of political expediency and the harsh experiences of imprisonment.
As the Pakistani security analyst Amir Mir notes, "the TNSM rejects democracy as un-Islamic" — something I also have heard the Taliban speak of routinely.
As a signal of the importance of the peace deal, Sufi Mohammad led members of the TSNM on a march through Mingora, the largest city in the Swat valley. Most of those marching, estimated to be around 15,000, wore black turbans — the signature dress item of the Taliban.
The Taliban initially agreed to a 10-day ceasefire in response to the peace deal, and soon after signed a "permanent ceasefire" with the local government.
Internationally there are fears that these latest developments will merely give the Taliban time to recover from recent losses until they are ready to fight again. Britain’s ambassador to Pakistan warned that the peace deal could "create space for further violence", while NATO said it risks giving the Taliban another "safe haven" in Pakistan. Neighbouring India has echoed these concerns, its Defence Minister saying it adds to the country’s militancy "worries".
The Australian Government, however, gave qualified support to the arrangement. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, on an official visit to Pakistan last week, said it could amount to "a positive development".
From the United States the signals have been just as mixed. Afghanistan and Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke said the peace deal was "not an encouraging trend" because it could result in territory being ceded to "the bad guys". In contrast, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said a similar deal could be reached with moderate elements of the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan if the Swat deal leads to long term stability.
But that, of course, is a very big "if".
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