ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani Taliban will not lay down their arms in a northwestern valley as part of a deal that included the introduction of sharia law but will take their “struggle” to new areas, a militant spokesman said on Wednesday.
President Asif Ali Zardari, under pressure from conservatives, signed a regulation on Monday imposing Islamic sharia law in the Swat valley to end Taliban violence.
The strategy of appeasement has alarmed U.S. officials, while critics say the government has demonstrated a lack of capacity and will to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Details of the deal have not been made public but government officials backing the pact have said part of it was that militants would give up their arms.
But a Pakistani Taliban spokesman in the scenic valley, a one-time tourist destination 125 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, said they would be keeping their guns.
“Sharia doesn’t permit us to lay down arms,” Muslim Khan said by telephone. “If a government, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan, continues anti-Muslim policies, it’s out of the question that Taliban lay down their arms.”
Surging violence across Pakistan and the spread of Taliban influence through the northwest are reviving concerns about the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan, an important U.S. ally vital to efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.
The government has struggled to come up with an effective strategy, alternating in different areas between military offensives and peace deals.
But the militants have been gaining strength and violence in both Pakistan and Afghanistan has been on the rise.
MILITANTS TO AFGHANISTAN?
Some Taliban fighters last week moved out of Swat and into Buner district, only 100 km (60 miles) from Islamabad, and Khan said his men would push into new areas.
“When we achieve our goal at one place, there are other areas where we need to struggle for it,” he said.
Militants infiltrated into Swat in 2007 from strongholds on the Afghan border to the west to support a radical cleric.
The White House voiced disappointment over the introduction of sharia law in Swat saying the decision went against U.S. goals of promoting democracy and human rights.
Visiting U.S. Senator John Kerry said late on Tuesday he was pessimistic about the pact: “I have serious reservations about whether or not it will hold.”
The insurgency had made progress over the past few months and the government needed to act with urgency, he said.
“I don’t think that the effort has been resourced the way that it needs to be either in personnel or strategy,” Kerry said.
Afghanistan said its security could be hurt by the deal in Swat, even though the valley is not on the Afghan border.
Khan said militants would go to Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces if Afghan Taliban called for help.
“Our struggle is for a cause and that’s to enforce Allah’s rule on Allah’s land. We will send mujahideen to Afghanistan if they demand them,” he said.
One security analyst, retired Brigadier Syed Mehmood Shah, said peace could be found if the government disarmed the militants: “The agreement should be given a chance.”
But another said the Swat militants were part of an expanding network.
“There is no comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy from the military or government. They are not taking it seriously,” said Khadim Hussain of the Aryana Institute think-tank.
In a decision militants will welcome, the Supreme Court ordered the release on bail of a radical cleric held since just before soldiers stormed his Red Mosque complex in Islamabad in 2007 to clear out gunmen.
The mosque had for years been a militant hub with links to Pakistani Taliban strongholds in the northwest including Swat.