Wariness in Pakistan

February 22, 2009

PROVINCIAL authorities in the Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan struck a peace deal with local Taliban franchisees this week, and in it the government agreed to extend Islamic law in the area. Since then, commentators around the world have pretended to know what the agreement means. Some suspect a "hidden hand," whether it be the intelligence agencies or the United States. In a conspiracy-prone Pakistan, some even talk of an inside deal between the army and the militants – even as they ignore the hundreds of casualties that the army suffered in Swat. Never mind that facts may interfere with these pet theories.

In reality, only the locals know what the deal really means. I recently received the following account from a young woman from the area:

"For months and months the military has been trying to quell the militants. Two days ago their failure was accepted when the provincial government of the North-West Frontier Province went into talks with Mullah Sufi Mohammad and accepted some things. We don’t yet know what those things are but the first promise is peace. Peace on what grounds? We don’t know.

"Today the party of the Mullah announced that ‘democracy’ is un-Islamic. It is too late. 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. Nobody is accountable for the thousands killed, for the closure of schools, for the beheadings of men and women. Nobody. Someone said to me the other day – ‘Don’t complain, because the one you complain to will be your enemy.’

"We no longer can turn [to anyone] here to complain. We now have to think about how to survive this. We now have to give up much of what many of us believe in – tolerance, peace, educated women, and freedom."

She believes the North-West Frontier Province is lost. And she questioned whether President Obama understands the extremists. "He seems to think that these people can be contained within their land, or [any] land. He thinks there is a meeting point, a dialogue possibility. Those who think that giving the militants their haven will contain them – well, the rest of the country and the world will see what this will lead to. This is not the end, it is only the beginning."

I can see her point. We seem to be reviving a deal that fell apart last year, a deal that the army opposed at that time. It fell apart in a matter of days, and the first army sortie resulted in some 18 dead soldiers. Will the army want to re-enter the fray if this deal falls apart? Who will claim responsibility for the inevitable failure?

Recall that in 1994 Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government agreed with the same militant leader, Mullah Sufi Mohammad, to allow him to run some districts of Swat and Malakand according to his convoluted view of Islamic law. He thus got legitimacy and grew into a force that now has brought a new government to the table.

Pakistan’s constitution already contains provisions protecting against un-Islamic laws. Why then does the country need an agreement with violent extremists to ensure Islamic laws? And who will pronounce on these laws? The militants? And if the army is to remain in a "reactive" mode, as a government minister explained, will they stand by and watch Taliban justice being meted out to people?

Who will ensure that girls’ schools will be rebuilt? Who will protect those who refuse to wear a beard or a burqa? Who will disarm the militants? Certainly not the Taliban.

The Swat deal gives territory in Pakistan proper to a militant minority, against the wishes of the majority of Muslims in what was once a valley of peace and quiet. If the militants gain this foothold, the stain of extremism will spread further into Pakistan. My young correspondent may be right: This is not the end, it is only the beginning.

Shuja Nawaz, author of "Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within," is director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council.

© 2009 The New York Times Company

Published by The Boston Globe