By Pamela Constable, Karen DeYoung and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 19, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 18 -- A controversial, closely watched peace agreement designed to end Taliban violence in the scenic Swat Valley hung in limbo Wednesday amid criticism in Pakistan and rising concern in Washington.
Neither the Pakistani government nor the Islamist extremists were willing to formalize the accord, announced by Pakistani officials Monday. The proposed pact marks an unprecedented and risky attempt to disarm about 2,000 Taliban fighters, who have invaded and terrorized a once-bucolic area of 1.5 million people in northwestern Pakistan, by offering to install a strict system of Islamic law in the surrounding district.
Supporters see the offer as an urgently needed bid for peace and a potential model for other areas ravaged by Pakistan's growing Islamist militancy, which controls areas 80 miles from the capital of this nuclear-armed Muslim nation. Critics say it would make too many concessions to ruthless extremist forces and provide them with a launching pad to drive deeper into the settled areas of Pakistan from their safe haven in the rough tribal districts along the border with Afghanistan.
"This is a bad idea that sends a very wrong signal," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense and security studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the capital. "It legitimizes the existence of violent armed groups and allows them to draw the wrong lesson: that if you are powerful enough to challenge the writ of the state, it will cave in and appease you."
In Washington, where the Obama administration has been conspicuously silent about the agreement, officials said privately that they considered it a major setback for U.S. goals in the region. "It's a surrender disguised as a truce," one official said, describing it as an admission that the government lacks the capacity to defend the crucial western part of the country.
Several officials said the proposed pact was evidence that the Pakistani government has no coherent plan for combating militancy. One noted that Pakistan had offered no comprehensive package of economic aid or outlined a long-term structure for the region. "This is signing a deal and calling it done," this official said. "What comes next?"
In December, Pakistani troops attempting to roust the Taliban from the Swat Valley were defeated by the far smaller extremist force. The military "met resistance that they and we didn't expect," a U.S. official said, citing sophisticated Taliban tactics, command and communications and participation by extremists from Chechnya and Afghanistan. The military, he said, "won some tactical victories; they didn't win their strategic objectives."
Monday's proposed peace accord took the Obama administration by surprise, U.S. officials said. They received no advance notice of the deal and remained uncertain of what was happening on the ground. "We're not even sure if it's a real deal," a senior U.S. military official said.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic and military sensitivities, said they hoped for clarification by next week, when senior Pakistani and Afghan delegations are due to arrive in Washington for high-level talks that are part of the administration's strategic review of the Afghan war effort and its policy toward Pakistan and the region.
The delegations will be headed by the foreign ministers of the two countries and will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, among others.
Holbrooke, who set up the visits during a tour of the region last week, said Wednesday that the administration expected two things from the meetings. "One, a sense of both countries that they are participating actively in shaping our strategy toward their countries, that it's not just a unilateral dictat. Secondly, " he said, "to stimulate them to do similar strategic thinking."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose government faces an identical challenge from Taliban insurgents controlling large portions of the Afghan countryside, plans to travel to Islamabad on Thursday for talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and other officials.
In the Swat Valley, a second day of confusion and uncertainty about the pact passed Wednesday, with rising hopes and a jubilant peace march among the local population, followed by the brutal killing of a Pakistani TV journalist, Musa Khan Khel. He was apparently seized and shot by fighters while covering the peace march, despite a Taliban offer of a 10-day cease-fire while elements of the accord are implemented.
Thousands of people turned out Wednesday morning in Swat to cheer and follow a delegation of religious and political leaders who entered the Taliban-controlled territory to persuade the extremists to sign the pact and put down their weapons. The Taliban has ravaged the once-pristine, affluent area for months, burning schools, killing police and ordering women to remain home. More than half the populace is believed to have fled their homes.
Leaders of Pakistan's secular Awami National Party, which orchestrated the deal, insist that it will bring a better justice system to the region and that they can reason with the Taliban because they are from the same ethnic Pashtun tribe. But other prominent Pakistanis assert that civilian leaders underestimate the danger posed by the insurgents.
"All segments of society and the general public need to be educated that Talibanization is a real and serious threat to the country, and that if nothing is done to stop its advance, then the anarchy will spread," Asad Munir, a retired brigadier and former intelligence chief in North-West Frontier Province, wrote in the News newspaper Tuesday. Pakistan's intelligence service once helped create Islamist militias to fight other wars.
In Swat, where followers of a nonviolent Islamist leader named Sufi Mohammad have been demanding the enforcement of Islamic law for years, the announcement of the agreement Monday was greeted by relief and hope. Shops reopened and people flooded the streets after months of hurrying home in fear. Preparations were made to welcome Mohammad, who had offered to come to Swat and persuade the fighters to lay down their arms.
On Wednesday morning, Mohammad's "caravan of peace" made its way into the valley, and thousands of well-wishers rallied in the central town of Mingaora. Many people seemed nervous and uncertain, however, and black-turbaned Taliban fighters were seen patrolling the outskirts of the city with weapons and walkie-talkies.
"We want peace at any cost," Gul Bad Shah, 46, a shopkeeper in one town said as the marchers passed. "We are very happy to see the hustle and bustle in the markets after a long time." A college student named Rehmanullah, 22, said the Taliban movement in Swat "will evaporate once the law is implemented in letter and spirit."
All day, Mohammad and his delegation moved from town to town, chanting for peace and hearing the cheers of supporters. Senior provincial officials and legislators, who rarely dare to venture into Swat these days, accompanied them. But a negotiating committee from the Taliban met in an undisclosed location and made no public comment.
The government's position on the deal also remained unclear, creating further anxiety. President Zardari, reportedly under pressure from the West, went a second day without signing the pact or making public the details of the law system. Several leaders in Swat told Geo television that they could co-exist with the Taliban and blamed the government for sabotaging their chance for peace.
But by late afternoon, news that Khan Khel had been slain while covering the march seemed to mock public hopes that the extremists' word could be trusted. Videos on the evening news showed him interviewing smiling people along the route, interspersed with images of colleagues carrying his corpse.
"He was with us all day on the march, and then suddenly we heard he had been kidnapped and killed and his body dumped on the road," said Irfan Ashraf, a reporter for Dawn television, speaking from Swat. "He was a journalist to the core, a sweet guy, and now he is no more here with us."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Khan reported from Mingaora. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.