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Engaging Taliban:

Pakistan's Swat deal shows the way

By Abdullah M. Adnan, February 28, 2009


Pakistan government’s agreement with TNSM (Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi: movement for enforcement of Sharia) to introduce Sharia law in the Malakand Division of the restive tribal areas has taken all by surprise. But it is simply a product of circumstances: extension of ‘war on terror’ to Pakistan in the form of ground assaults and drone attacks, US demands to ‘do more,’ rising in arms of tribal people and calling for Sharia enforcement compelled the government to try to resolve all the nagging problems in one go.

It struck a deal with club-wielding, not gun-toting, zealots in anticipation of peace in Malakand and its spill-over to six other tribal agencies. Life returned to normal in Swat, the main city of Malakand agency, soon after the deal, people thronged markets and students attended schools after a long break. Even militants, feeling pressure, first announced a 10-day ceasefire and then extended it for an indefinite period. Benefiting from the ceasefire, the hundreds of thousands who had left the area in the face of militants-military clashes have started returning to their homes.

The US-led West might have been variously surprised, stunned and concerned, but it would soon realize that by “attempting to drive a wedge between al-Qaeda and the militant Taliban on the one hand, and Swat's indigenous movement that seeks to restore traditional law in the district,” as Pak envoy to US Hussain Haqqani stated, Pakistan has in fact taken a clue from the British and Americans who were advocating for differentiating between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.

This is why Ms. Clinton was not so critical, though Holbrooke was ‘troubled and confused.’ Robert Gates’ response was more educative: “If there is a reconciliation, if insurgents are willing to put down their arms…Washington could accept a political agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban militants along the lines of a truce in Pakistan.”

Effecting a truce, Pakistan has not only got some respite, it has, quite surprisingly, shown US the way out of the “graveyard of empires.” Instead of troop surge in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama should start pulling out forces from Afghanistan as he plans to do in Iraq.

Similarly, the new US president should stop drone attacks inside Pakistan. More than killing so-called insurgents, such strikes end up killing civilians in droves. Pakistanis, and their government (if only for public consumption), had pinned hopes on the Obama administration that it would do away with drone attacks. But all their hopes have nose-dived now. Mr. Obama can ill-afford erosion of goodwill at this phase of US foreign policy review. Moreover, with reports that Pakistan government is not only in the know but also facilitating the US operations, that drones in fact take off and land at US airbases within Pakistan, the already fledgling government is losing confidence of its people.

Mere use of force cannot weed out extremism, rather it fans extremist tendencies. Neither the US could exterminate al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan only through force, nor was Pakistan able to put down armed resistance in its territory by sending in over 120,000 troops. Lately, yet rightly, the Pakistan army has also become sensitive about the necessity of public support. It feels it can no longer fight against its own people, that it will be left to its own after US’ eventual pull-out from the region, however far-off that might seem to be at this moment.

In these circumstances, if the deal with TNSM leads to lasting peace and stability in the region, in addition to showing the way out of the ‘Afghan quagmire,’ it should be welcomed by all. Peace in tribal areas is essential for peace and stability in Pakistan; peaceful and stable Pakistan is in the interest of the world.

Finally, it is worth noting that by entering into deal with TNSM for enforcement of traditional judicial system in the name of Sharia law, the government has met the popular demand and yet avoided inauguration of Islamic system. As the title of agreement, Nizam-e-Adl (justice system) Regulation, suggests, it is just about restoring the age-old tradition for speedy justice, rather than Islamic system that encompasses political and economic order as well.

Abdullah M. Adnan is Associate Director, International Institute of Strategic Studies and Research, Islamabad.





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