Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat – After more than one year of bloody conflict with the Taliban militants in Swat Valley, the civilian government of Pakistan has come to the conclusion that the best course available to it is to accede to the demand that Shariaa law be implemented in the valley.
According to leaders of the ruling Awami National Party of the North West Frontier Province (of which Swat Valley is a part), the enforcement of Shariaa law in Swat Valley would bring an end to 14 months of conflict between the Pakistani army and pro-Taliban militants led by Maulana Fazlullah, a native religious scholar who over the past year has used terror tactics to enforce his violent and narrow interpretation of Islamic principles on the people of Swat Valley.
The provincial government of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) signed the deal for the enforcement of Shariaa law in Swat with another influential religious scholar, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who is Fazlullah’s father-in-law. But Sufi Muhammad is on a different path to his son-in-law as he is often described as a non-violent religious leader.
The Pakistani government expects Maulana Sufi Muhammad to convince the militants to lay down their arms in return for the government’s decision to accede to their demand to enforce Shariaa law in Swat. “Sufi Muhammad has promised the government that he will convince Maulana Fazlullah and his fighters to lay down arms,” said a senior official of the NWFP government.
After a meeting in the small town of Timargara, located on the outskirts of Swat Valley, the officials of the NWFP government and Maulana Sufi Muhammad signed the agreement to bring in Shariaa law in Swat Valley on February 16.
The provincial government asked military commanders deployed in Swat not to pursue the militants. The military spokesman, Major General Attar Abbas told journalists in Islamabad that the military would abide by the agreement between the provincial government and Sufi Muhammad.
Within hours of the agreement being signed, the militants also announced a ten-day ceasefire.
According to reports received from Swat, the general mood in the valley and in the neighbouring areas was jubilant. People in the troubled Swat Valley breathed a sigh of relief following the announcement that an agreement had been reached, said journalist Rahimullah Yousafzai.
The enforcement of Shariaa law has been a long-standing demand of the people of Swat. Moreover, there is a general perception in Swat Valley that Shariaa law would bring peace to their troubled region.
“The people of Swat have made it very clear that they want Shariaa law as they believe it would make their area peaceful and facilitate quick and affordable delivery of justice,” said Rahmanullah Yousafzai, a well-known journalist, who is considered an expert on militancy in Pakistan.
The population of just over one million in Swat has been caught in the cross fire between the Taliban militants and Pakistani troops since last year. The conflict has caused extensive damage to the private property and infrastructure, and has resulted in numerous civilian casualties. The army’s reliance on artillery to attack militants’ hideouts has led to the destruction of thousands of private properties in Swat.
According to a senior government official, the damage caused to the property and infrastructure since the emergence of militancy in Swat is over 3 billion Pakistani Rupees. The number of schools blown up or torched now stands at 181.
Situated 160 kilometres away from Islamabad, Swat is a valley as well as an administrative district in the North West Frontier Province. With high mountains, green meadows and clear lakes, it was popular among Pakistani as well as foreign tourists and was known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan” before religious extremism and militancy brought instability to the region.
The administrative capital of Swat valley is Saidu Sharif and the main town is Mingora, both of which have been severely hit by militancy. Internationally famous ski resort, Malam Jabba, 40 kilometres away from Saidu Sharif, was burned down by the militants in 2008.
By early January 2009, Pakistan’s political and military leadership both agreed that Swat was slipping out of their hands.
It all started with the rise of a religious cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, who exploited the rising resentment against state apparatus in the wake of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation in Islamabad in July 2007, during which over one hundred religious students were killed.
Initially Maulana Fazlullah and his fighters revolted against the government of former President Pervez Musharraf, who they labelled an American puppet. Maulana Fazlullah, who runs a Madrassah and a pirate radio station from Swat, regularly issued religious rulings against Pervez Musharraf and his pro-American government in Islamabad.
The cleric eventually began demanding a purely Islamic state governed through Islamic Shariaa law in Pakistan. Maulana Fazlullah established Shariaa courts in Swat Valley and began to pass judgments in the area. “Every Friday, the Taliban hold summary trials after which they not only pass judgments but also carry out whippings and death sentences,” says Muhammad Abdullah, a wealthy shopkeeper from Swat.
In the absence of effective public services offered by the state in Swat, the influence of Taliban militants gradually increased in society. In October 2008, gastroenteritis disease affected a large proportion of Swat’s residents. Because of the year-long conflict, the civil administration was in disarray and was in no position to provide health facilities to the people of Swat as most of the government hospitals were closed. The private clinics in the valley were charging high fees. As a result, the Taliban leader Muslim Khan ordered private clinics to provide inexpensive treatment to the people. The next day all the private clinics reduced their fees by half to the relief of the people of Swat.
Soon the Taliban began to enforce its narrow interpretation of Islamic principles on the residents of Swat Valley. Its first victim was girls’ education.
According to a senior official from the NWFP government, over 40,000 young girls were deprived of education in Swat as a result of the ban on female education imposed by militant commanders. This estimate was based on a report by the provincial ministry of education. According to government estimates, there are more than 490 schools for girls in Swat Valley and 181 of them have been completely destroyed by the Taliban.
The locals state that they had no option but to accede to the demands of the Taliban as the government failed to provide them with security.
In a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the principal of a girls’ school in Swat said that the Taliban’s ultimatum had proved that the government had no power in Swat Valley.
At the end of 2007, the Pakistani government sent 20,000 troops to the Swat Valley to restore order. The military operation continued for three months and was relatively successful in eliminating militants.
After parliamentary elections in Pakistan in February last year, the new government began to engage in dialogue with the militants and the military operation was halted. “We signed a peace agreement with militants because they promised to lay down their weapons,” said Zahid Khan, spokesman for the Awami National Party, which came to power in the North West Frontier Province after the February parliamentary elections.
However, in reality, the militants gained strength after signing an agreement with the provincial government in July 2008. “After the government signed an agreement with the militants, the military withdrew. This situation afforded the opportunity to militants to regroup and re-organize. They began to reassert themselves in society,” said military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas.
The withdrawal of army troops from Swat in July 2008 led to a vacuum in the area, and this of course was exploited by the militants. They began to target those who had supported the military during the initial operation. They started using terror as a weapon. They killed, kidnapped and coerced people.
“The people were discouraged, demoralized and alienated regarding the security apparatus. During this situation, the security forces were not able to help them against the militants. In such a situation the government again decided to re-launch the military operation,” explained Major General Athar Abbas in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat before the Swat deal was reached.
The second phase of the military operation that began mid-2008 lasted until the signing of the most recent deal between Maulana Sufi Muhammad and the NWFP government on February 16, 2009.
“The law and order situation in Swat is far from satisfactory but we all hope that the latest agreement with Maulana Sufi Muhammad will bring peace to Swat,” said Major General Athar Abbas, as he spoke to journalists in Islamabad immediately after the signing of agreement.
Security experts say that the Shariaa enforcement agreement has changed very little on the ground in Swat Valley. The fighters of Maulana Fazlullah continue to occupy strategic positions in and around Swat.
“They are well armed and motivated,” said Brigadier (Retired) Mehmood Shah, a former intelligence official. Brigadier (Retired) Shah told Asharq Al-Awsat, “There are no more than 500 militants. But in the loot and plunder, other criminal elements also join them, making them number up to 5000 or more.”
“There is nothing wrong in acceding to the demands of enforcing Shariaa law as it was the demand of the people and there is a chance that Maulana Sufi Muhammad would succeed in convincing the militants to give up arms,” he added.
Still few military experts doubt the capability of the Taliban militants to remain in a dominant military position in the Swat Valley. Pakistani military officials told Asharq Al-Awsat that this time the military would not retreat and would remain deployed in the valley. A Pakistani military spokesman also issued a warning on February 16 that if attacked, the Pakistani army would react strongly.
Peace in Swat Valley now hinges on the success of the efforts of one man; Maulana Sufi Muhammad. Head of the banned movement Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) Maulana Sufi Muhammad reached Swat on Tuesday to hold talks with Taliban militants in order to convince them to lay down their arms.
Sources close to Maulana Sufi Muhammad told Asharq Al-Awsat that he would hold talks with Maulana Fazlullah to restore peace in Swat Valley and to clear the valley of weapons. “I will remain in Swat until peace is restored in the valley,” Maulana Sufi Muhammad reportedly told journalists on his arrival in Swat.
Political analysts predict that the course to peace will not run smoothly. Apart from the difficult task of convincing the militants to lay down arms, the ruling Pakistan People Party government led by President Asif Ali Zardari showed its hesitation regarding the signing of the deal.
“President Asif Ali Zardari will not sign the deal for the enforcement of Shariaa law in Swat until peace is restored in the valley,” said Information Minister, Sherry Rehman in a statement. She said that the government now hoped that the militants would disarm before the deal could be implemented. Legal experts say that without the approval of President Asif Ali Zardari, the deal between the NWFP government and Sufi Muhammad would be void. Pressure from the West and criticism from Pakistan’s liberals is proving too great for the government to bear. The Western media and Pakistan’s liberals share the same opinion towards the enforcement of Shariaa law in Swat.