Islamic Law Instituted In Pakistan's Swat Valley

Pakistan agreed to suspend military offensives and impose Islamic law in part of the restive northwest, making a gesture it hopes will help calm the Taliban insurgency while rejecting Washington's call for tougher measures against militants. Video by AP
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Feb. 16 -- The Pakistani government, desperate to restore peace to a Taliban-infested valley once known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan," agreed Monday to enforce strict Islamic law in the surrounding district near the Afghan border, conceding to a long-standing demand by local Islamist leaders who in turn pledged to ask the fighters to lay down their arms.

In announcing the agreement, Pakistani officials asserted that the adoption of sharia law would bring swift and fair justice to the Swat Valley, where people have long complained of legal corruption and delays. They said the new system would have "nothing in common" with the draconian rule of the Taliban militia that ran Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, during which thieves' hands were amputated and adulterers were stoned to death.

"There was a vacuum . . . in the legal system. The people demanded this and they deserve it," said Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister of the North-West Frontier Province. The new system will include an appeals process, something the Afghan Taliban justice system did not allow for.

Militant leaders in the scenic Swat Valley, in a gesture of good faith, said they would observe a 10-day cease-fire while the new system is implemented. The Pakistani army said it would suspend operations in the area, and there were anecdotal reports of celebratory gunfire and of crowds returning to once-deserted streets.

But Pakistani critics blasted the deal as a dangerous concession to extremist insurgents who have terrified inhabitants of the valley for months, sending thousands fleeing to safer areas. They have bombed girls' schools, beheaded policemen, whipped criminals in public squares and assassinated activists from the secular Awami National Party that governs the North-West Frontier Province.

The critics expressed fear that this victory might spur the insurgents to push harder for the imposition of Islamic law in other areas, taking advantage of a promise by the Pakistani army to pull back from the surrounding area if peace is restored.

The new special U.S. envoy to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, underscored American concerns Monday when he said the insurgent takeover of Swat, once a popular tourist destination, had shown that "India, the U.S. and Pakistan all have a common threat now." In New Delhi, Holbrooke said he had spoken to people from Swat during his recent visit to Pakistan and found them "frankly quite terrified."

As Pakistani officials were defending their decision to negotiate with the insurgents, a U.S. missile attack by an unmanned aircraft on a suspected insurgent camp killed more than 30 people in the nearby tribal area of Kurram. The second such attack in three days, it came amid increasing protests by opposition groups that the government is sacrificing Pakistani lives and sovereignty to U.S. strategic interests.

President Asif Ali Zardari said Friday that there was "no alternative" but to use force against the insurgents, and his government is widely believed to accept the controversial drone attacks. Yet Zardari, after some initial hesitation and wording changes, also approved the new sharia plan for Malakand Agency, the large district in the North-West Frontier Province that includes Swat.

Pakistan's information minister, Sherry Rehman, rejected suggestions that the Malakand accord was a concession to the insurgents, saying it is "in no way a sign of the state's weakness." In a statement issued Monday night from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, she said Zardari will implement sharia law "after the restoration of peace in the region."

Leaders of the Awami National Party here said they also supported the agreement even though their own views are more secular and they have been targeted by insurgent attacks. They said the government does not have sufficient force to defeat the Taliban and foreign fighters based in the autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border. So, they said, it needs to negotiate with local militant groups in nearby areas such as Swat to isolate the renegade hard-liners in the tribal sanctuaries.

"I have agreed to put my personal hardships behind me for the sake of peace," said Wajid Ali Khan, a provincial official from Swat who said that he was put on a Taliban hit list and that his brother was assassinated because of his Awami affiliation. "We have addressed the core issue, which was Nizam-e-Adl [sharia law system], so now the fighting and other activities should stop."

But deals with Islamist groups in Pakistan have a history of failure, and this one has several weaknesses. It was not signed by any Swat insurgents but by an older insurgent leader, Sufi Mohammad, who must now persuade the younger and more firebrand fighters to disarm. Mohammad led an armed uprising in Swat in 1994 to bring in sharia rule, but it failed and he was imprisoned for several years, allowing his more radical son-in-law to take over the movement.

After a day-long meeting Monday that led to the announcement of a deal, one senior member of the local sharia movement named Mohammed Iqbal, wearing a long beard and large turban, said the group was satisfied and would soon set out to speak to the Swat fighters. "When sharia is implemented, there will be peace, not only in Malakand but all over the world," Iqbal said.

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