It has come full-circle. The friends-turned-foes say they are friends again. The latest peace agreement between the Pakistan government and the Taliban could well cease hostilities in the serene Swat Valley, but the price of peace might prove too high. The deal, finalised on 21 May, is a unique quid pro quo: the Taliban has agreed to respect the writ of the state, in return for the government’s commitment to enforce the writ of Allah, by implementing Sharia law in the country’s mountainous northern Malakand area.
The agreement, clinched by representatives of the government of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) is, however, somewhat limited in scope, and will cover only six districts of the province – Swat, Shangla, Bunair, Dir Upper, Dir Lower and Chitral. As such, it will not be implemented in the seven Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) along the border with Afghanistan, which have been witness to Taliban militancy following the US-led coalition attack on Afghanistan in 2001. However, the contents of the agreement with the Swat Taliban are indicative of the extent to which the government is ready to go to achieve peace in militancy-stricken areas. “Separate channels are being used to engage with all groups, in an effort to stop violence which has paralysed our lives in the country,” said a Home Ministry official. “We hope we’ll be able to bring everybody on board to protect the interests of the country.”
The 16-point agreement is considered by many to be an achievement for the new democratically elected government, which is trying to clear the political, security and institutional debris left behind by nine years of military rule. At least one of its election promises, of curtailing militancy through talks, appears now to be materialising. This was taking place even as the government was drawing flak from its own coalition partners and civil society, on the question of the restoration of judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf as he imposed emergency rule on 3 November last year.
It was not difficult, though, to understand why the government appeared jubilant. “Congratulations – we have an agreement!” exclaimed Bashir Bilour, head of the official team that drew up the accord much quicker than expected, after just two rounds of talks over 11 days. Besides agreeing to de-escalate the violence, the Taliban also undertook to withdraw its opposition to various vaccination efforts, and agreed not to obstruct women’s education. Other clauses include handing over all foreign militants to the government, and an assurance from the militants that they would not attack barber shops and markets visited by women.
For all the excitement, worries remain that the agreement is mostly one of a statement of promises, and ominously lacks details of implementation. The agreement names representatives from both sides who will oversee its operationalisation, but little more. “Matching fine words with actions will be the real test,” said Shamrez Khan (not his real name), who has previously been affiliated with a proscribed religious group. “Attaining peace is easier than sustaining it.” He believes that Taliban-affiliated formations are not the only groups active in Swat, an area that saw stepped-up insurgency in reaction to the military action against the Red Mosque in Islamabad last summer, which left hundreds of people dead. These groups have been active in the area since 1993, when the Movement for the Enforcement of Shariat Mohammadi launched an armed struggle for Islamic laws in the area. The Movement eased after the Benazir Bhutto government agreed to constitute Islamic courts in the area in the mid-1990s; however, the various groups continued to pursue their Islamicisation agenda on the local level.
The Movement again reared its head when its leader, Sufi Muhammad, led thousands of people across the border to fight the American forces following their attack on Afghanistan in October 2001. Sufi was arrested on his return, only to be released in April 2008. This was apparently as a gesture of goodwill towards the Swat Taliban, which had been led by the hardcore Islamist Maulana Fazullah in Sufi’s absence. During that time, the Swat Taliban had been able to shut down the video and cable-television businesses in many areas of the valley, in addition to having closed many schools for girls. Fazullah’s illegal radio station, which he used to mobilise foot soldiers and preach his message, had become a constant irritant for the country’s security apparatus. The valley, which used to be a popular tourist destination, had become a base for all sorts of extremist groups on the run, at least until the government launched a military operation in December 2007.
The foreign hands
“Taliban are not the only stakeholders,” explained Shamrez Khan. “There are Islamic groups such as Jaish Muhammad, which may not accept the agreement and may continue their struggle until the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq.” Khan’s suspicions are not unfounded. Just hours before the agreement was inked, unidentified attackers bombed two girls’ schools and cable-television shops in the Swat Valley – perhaps a statement of protest against the deal by any one of an assortment of militant groups that continues to function in the valley and throughout the country’s tribal areas.
The worst threat to lasting peace, however, could be foreign militants. Many of these have been left stranded in Pakistan, where they have taken refuge in the wake of the American invasion of Afghanistan. “There are foreigners, hundreds of them, many from Central Asia, who are not going to stop unless their presence is legitimised by the government,” said a leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from Shangla District, requesting not to be named. But the government seems to be in no mood to compromise on the issue of foreign militants, and appears to have been successful in convincing the Swat Taliban to turn them in to the authorities. “This may provoke internal fighting among militant groups,” warned the PPP leader. “There are numerous Uzbeks in the area who are armed with sophisticated weapons. They will not give in at any cost, and will fight whoever attempts to uproot them.”
The peace agreement has also made Pakistan’s international allies in the US-led ‘war on terror’ quite jittery. “We hope that they proceed cautiously,” said American Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, “and do not accept an outcome that will give extremist elements the ability to use FATA in order to carry out attacks on Pakistan, on Afghanistan, or on the United States or the rest of the world.” When he visited Pakistan this past March, Negroponte had opposed talks with “irreconcilable” elements.
How Pakistan will manage complex diplomatic concerns will be seen in the days to come. Indeed, the government may find it difficult to sell the idea of withdrawing militarily from Swat and the tribal areas to its international allies. Such a withdrawal from Waziristan could well be met with a non-negotiable ‘no’, particularly from the US, which sees the rugged terrain as a hotbed of militancy, where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have found a ‘safe haven’ to regroup. There is clearly some truth in this. In 2007 alone, Pakistan saw the killing of more than 750 people, including Benazir Bhutto, in 56 suicide attacks. Most of these were blamed by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies on the Baitullah Mahsud-led Taliban Movement of Pakistan. Mahsud is believed to operate out of hideouts in Waziristan, and his men have also been accused by NATO commanders of carrying out attacks inside Afghanistan. Mahsud has also been accused of Benazir’s assassination, and with holding the Pakistan ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, hostage until mid-May, when he was apparently released as the government attempted to woo Mahsud into accepting the recent deal.
Perhaps most critically in this diplomatic dance, the agreement with the Swat Taliban does not allay concerns about the crossborder militancy. While on the one hand the accord entails the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from certain areas, it does not preclude the Taliban from joining international jihadi movements. Taliban members thus may transform into law-abiding citizens in Pakistan, but be quite free to foment terror elsewhere. This fear was in fact raised by Kabul, even as the new government opened channels for dialogue with Taliban groups. A spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry warned that the peace deal in Pakistan’s tribal areas would not stop Taliban attacks on targets inside Afghanistan – and could even jeopardise the relationship between the two countries.
At the moment, Pakistani officials have no answers to these concerns. Rather, they are merely reiterating the government’s resolve to curb militancy and prohibit the use of Pakistani soil to launch attacks on other countries. “Pakistan has reassured the United States that any deal with Taliban will require their disarming,” said an official with the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad. In the face of such promises, however, the deal with the Swat Taliban does not expressly include any such provision, but merely requires their ‘voluntary ceasefire’.
High price for peace
It is not just Pakistan’s international allies who are nervous. Equally stressed are the country’s liberal democrats, who believe that, in the long run, the country may be paying too high a price for peace. “We are giving ground to the rightwing forces, accepting their demands such as enforcing Islam on their terms,” said Afreina Noor, a rights activist based in Islamabad. “We have seen the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and we are legitimising the same band of people in our country.”
These fears mostly stem from some of the more blatant Taliban demands to which the government has now acceded. The withdrawal of the military from Malakand, despite the fact that no timeframe has been specified, is itself a moral victory for the Swat Taliban. The group now hopes to draw up an amnesty for its leaders, including Maulana Fazullah. Meanwhile, the government agreed to enforce Sharia law, though again the accord is silent on exactly how this will happen. This has already created a fear within many that a mini-Taliban state is on the verge of being set up within Pakistan. Perhaps most worrying to many is the precedent of the agreement – for other groups to band together, take up arms and kill innocent people in order to push the state to accept their radical demands. “This agreement will encourage the spread of Talibanisation in Pakistan,” said Noor.
At the moment, the NWFP government sees the peace deal as a reinforcement of the writ of the state, which has been consistently challenged by militants since the military launched an operation in the area more than four years ago. “What we couldn’t achieve through force over all these years was made possible by meaningfully engaging with them [the Taliban] and hearing them out,” said a government official who has been privy to the dialogue. “There has been no barter involved, but only an understanding of the position of the two parties. Let’s give dialogue a chance.”
~ Muddassir Rizvi is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
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