Sharia in Swat: Is This Appeasement?

Under a peace deal signed by the NWFP provincial government, the authorities say they will withdraw security forces and allow the pro-Taliban militants to impose Sharia law in Swat in return for promises to close training camps and end attacks. This is particularly astonishing as it involves secular nationalists of the Awami National Party that trounced the right wing JUI party in the last elections.

This announcement by Senior Minister of NWFP Bashir Ahmad Bilour followed a ceasefire announced by Taleban leader Baitullah Mehsud last month. There were also reports of a 15-point draft deal that called for an end to militant activity and an exchange of prisoners in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from part of the tribal region of South Waziristan.

The latest deal has been agreed in spite of the United States and NATO warnings to Pakistan against negotiating an agreement with militants along its border with Afghanistan.

The Bush administration has said such a deal would give the militants a free hand in Pakistan's tribal areas, which have long operated outside the central government's full control.

A previous deal reached with the militants by President Pervez Musharraf in 2006 was abandoned after accusations of violations by both sides and the US missile strikes on alleged militant targets inside Pakistan. The new deal is broader in the sense that it accepts the implementation of Shariah Law acceptable to the pro-Taleban elements in Malakand and Sawat.

Al Qaeda members as well as Taliban militants are believed to have taken refuge in North and South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, after US-led forces ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001.

This deal is likely to bring some peace and stability in the short term, if it is not immediately undermined by the US and NATO by missile strikes on targets inside Pakistan's tribal region along the Afghan border. However, it is likely to be seen as appeasement by many within and outside Pakistan who see this latest deal as the beginning of a slippery slope toward a full-fledged Taleban-style rule in the entire country. Such a scenario would put Pakistan in direct conflict with the West that could be very damaging to the interests of Pakistanis at large. It could mark the beginning of a brief period of peace followed by endless conflict involving US, NATO, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other regional players.

It is possible to avoid endless conflict and its devastating consequences for the entire South Asian and Central Asian regions and the world. However, this would require a broader strategy with political participation of the US, EU and the regional players. Pakistan can play a crucial role here by persuading its friends in the US and EU to go beyond the rhetoric of simply denouncing the Taliban as evil, refusing to engage with them politically and vowing to destroy them by military action alone. Unlike Al-Qaeda, the Taliban do have roots among the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal population. Such refusal adds to the "mystique of resistance and struggle" of the Taleban, in the words of Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria. Without dealing with the Taleban as a political entity, it is not possible to have a political strategy to fight and dilute the appeal of the Taliban or to marginalize the extreme elements within its fold.

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