Taliban in Pakistan's Swat Valley Extends Cease-Fire; Formal Deal Still in Limbo
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 24 -- Taliban insurgents in Pakistan's Swat Valley extended a cease-fire Tuesday, strengthening a peace process that Western governments say risks granting a safe haven to extremists close to the Afghan border.
Nevertheless, it remained unclear whether the insurgents would agree to a government offer to impose a version of Islamic law in the northwestern region in exchange for giving up their weapons.
The government in Islamabad has dispatched an Islamist cleric with ties to the insurgency to negotiate with fighters in the valley, though neither side has given many details on how the talks are going or when a formal agreement is expected.
Troops and insurgents have observed a truce in Swat since Feb. 15, when Islamabad initiated the peace process.
Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said that the cease-fire had been extended "for an indefinite period" and that he expected the military to abide by the truce.
Late Tuesday, Swat Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah told his fighters about the truce in a broadcast over an FM frequency. "We will make this pact a success to bring peace. I want to ask all of our men not to display weapons, not to attack army vehicles and not to attack their supply lines," he said. "Anybody who violates these orders should expect a strict action."
The military has been abiding by the truce but has said it will not withdraw from the valley until there is lasting peace. The military did not comment on the Taliban's announcement Tuesday.
Swat has been racked by an increasingly widespread insurgency since mid-2007 despite the presence of about 12,000 troops. The insurgents have killed secular politicians and critics, bombed girls schools and enforced a hard-line version of Islamic law.
The Islamic justice system offered last week by the government is restricted to changes in the region's court system and contains no provisions for the harsh measures espoused by the Taliban. Given that and the insurgents' position of strength in the valley, analysts have questioned the incentive for them to sign on.
The Taliban has not clearly stated whether it will fully disarm, allow girls to attend school or demand a military withdrawal -- all issues that could break any agreement.
Pakistani officials say the offer to introduce Islamic law addresses long-standing anger in the region over its slow and corrupt justice system, anger that the Taliban has used as a rallying cry. Some analysts say the peace initiative may be an attempt to weaken the insurgency by co-opting its more moderate members.
Still, NATO and the United States have voiced concern that any peace accord could effectively cede the Swat Valley to the extremists.