Rescue or surrender? Local hero brings sharia law to troubled region
• *Taliban-dominated area wins religious concession *
• *Government accused of capitulation to Islamists*
Saeed Shah in Islamabad The Guardian, Wednesday 18 February 2009
With his long, flowing white beard and black turban, Sufi Muhammad cut an imposing figure as he walked through the crowds in Mingora town, north-west Pakistan yesterday. Tribesmen and mullahs jostled to be at his side, then raised him aloft. All around, black-and-white flags fluttered – flags of the religious group founded by Muhammad, the Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi.
The organisation was banned in 2002 after Muhammad led hundreds of young men across the border to fight alongside the Taliban against the US-led coalition. He was jailed and only freed last year. Yesterday though, Muhammad was hailed as the man who brought peace to Pakistan’s Swat region – by securing the official imposition of Islamic law. Muhammad has persuaded the government of Pakistan to agree to the enforcement of sharia for the vast Malakand area, which includes Swat.
Desperate for a respite from violence, thousands turned out in Mingora, Swat’s main city, to greet him. A ceasefire was announced by the local Taliban in response to Muhammad’s deal, which was unveiled on Monday. And that has made this Islamist something of a local hero. Sweets were distributed in the town as people flocked on to the previously deserted streets. For the first time in months, all the shops opened, the bazaars were busy and even schools suddenly started teaching again.
“We have come out of a nightmare. We are very excited,” said Zubair Torwali, a social worker from Swat. “Ordinary people want peace at any cost.”
The authorities portrayed it as a political settlement to end the bloodshed. Others see it as the moment of Pakistan’s capitulation to the extremists.
Swat slipped out of government control two years ago, and over the last few months it had been an almost total takeover by a fearsome band of Taliban led by Muhammad’s estranged son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah. Under the militants’ control, girls schools were closed, women banned from shopping, and public floggings and executions were carried out. The main business in Swat – tourism – was extinguished. For the people there, Sufi Muhammad had managed to get the extremists to lay down their arms in return for the introduction of Islamic courts. In turn, government forces will pull out of active operations in the region.
It remains unclear how much hold Muhammad has over Fazlullah and more hardline elements in the region. Yesterday, though, the people of Swat appeared relieved that the fighting had stopped.
“Today, the fear has finished,” Sherin Zada, a hotelier in Swat.
Others in this country, though, are less optimistic. “This is not a political solution. It is very clearly a surrender,” said Athar Minallah, a lawyer and civil liberties activist. “It’s a complete failure of the institutions of the state. The political forces are looking for a shortcut, but this will have very long-term repercussions for this country. It sends the message that anyone who takes up arms will succeed.”
Swat lies in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), just 100 miles from the capital Islamabad, not tribal areas further west that have always had their own rules and, after 9/11, have been largely lost to the Taliban and al-Qaida. In Swat in 2007, Fazlullah broke with the somewhat softer Islamist organisation of his father-in-law and joined the Pakistani Taliban, taking up arms and suicide bombings. The rule of the Taliban in Swat has led to the death of hundreds, while up to 500,000 may have fled their brutal attacks.
IA Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, warned that the new courts, not the government, would end up deciding what constitutes sharia and Islamic punishments, producing a new tussle with the state. “There’s a question of whether it [sharia] can be contained to Malakand. Once it spreads to Frontier, then why not Punjab (Pakistan’s heartland)?” said Rehman.
The Pakistan army, which has around 12,000 soldiers deployed in a losing battle in Swat, announced that it will now hold fire against the militants.
Asad Munir, a retired army brigadier who was formerly head of military intelligence for the NWFP, said that the government was right to try to isolate Fazlullah by building up Sufi Muhammad and conceding the key demand of sharia. But he warned that military operations had to continue and that the Taliban would use the ceasefire to regroup.
“[The Taliban] are not going to leave the power they’ve got through the gun,” said Munir. “They will never surrender.”
The government, which is led by the secular Pakistan People party, seems not to know how to deal with the extremists. Islamabad said that the new laws would not come in until peace was restored and that the form of sharia would comply with the existing constitution of Pakistan.
“Western values cannot hold the ground all the time, said Raza Rabbani, a minister in the federal government. “You mix values and principles with ground realities and give it a touch which is Pakistani.”
Pakistan’s western allies view it differently. The British high commission in Islamabad warned that, “previous peace deals have not provided a … long-term solution to Swat’s problems”.
Nato, which heads the international coalition across the border, is concerned that Swat and the wider Malakand region could now become a sanctuary for militants that would then cross over into Afghanistan. “We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven. Without doubting the good faith of the Pakistani government, it is clear that the region is suffering very badly from extremists and we would not want it to get worse,” said a Nato spokesman, James Appathurai, in Brussels. Law unto themselves
*Malakand* administrative “division” now comprises the mountainous, former princely states of *Swat*, *Dir* and *Chitral*, in the far north-west of Pakistan. These states remained independent during the British Raj and even after Pakistan was formed, becoming part of the country only in the 1960s.
In Swat, under the ruler, the “*Wali* of Swat”, there was what he called *Islamic law* and, though it was not a particularly religious form of justice at the time, many in the area hanker after sharia, remembering how quickly cases were decided in the Wali’s era.
A young *Winston Churchill* wrote his first published non-fiction book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, about a military campaign he fought in Malakand in 1897.
The British did not believe in the kind of *peace* deal just announced by Pakistan. In the book, Churchill describes a *massacre* of the local tribes, with six-foot-high piles of bodies.
Peace or appeasement in Pakistan?
*The recent deal between religious leaders in tribal Pakistan and the government legitimates the Taliban insurgency* Mustafa Qadri guardian.co.uk , Wednesday 18 February 2009 22.00 GMT
The timing could not have been more emblematic of the mess engulfing Pakistan. Barely a day after the new United States envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, completed his preliminary consultations with Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders about confronting the Taliban, the same leadership endorsed a deal with religious leaders sympathetic to the jihadi movement in the country’s northern tribal district of Malakand.
The agreement negotiated last Monday with a local group called Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, or Movement for the Establishment of Islamic Law, did not directly involve the Taliban. But TNSM has many ideological similarities with the Taliban and its leader, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, is the father-in-law of a key Taliban leader in the region, Maulana Fazlullah.
The Taliban issued a 10-day ceasefire in Malakand in honour of the agreement.
Under the “Nizam-i-Adl Regulation” reached between TSNM and the North Western Frontier Province government, sharia, or Islamic law, is to supersede “all un-Islamic laws” – meaning the secular laws of the local, state and, potentially, federal governments of Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari said the new legal regime would not supplant “the writ of the state” but that leaves open the question: whose state? The Taliban or the TSNM could argue that because Pakistan is an Islamic state, actions aimed at enforcing Islamic law and tradition, even by force of arms, are consistent with the writ of the state.
The Pakistani government could contest these claims, but people in Malakand think little of the politicians in Islamabad whose lifestyle and language is a world away from their own. The views of local conservatives like Maulana Sufi and the Taliban’s Fazlullah resonate more easily even if people do not accept all their pronouncements.
The government has made two main calculations in concluding the agreement, one tactical the other political. It has gambled that acquiescing to the implementation of Islamic law removes much of the oxygen upon which the fire of Taliban descent is fuelled.
Ordinary citizens in the urban centres where most of Pakistan’s population live have been deeply troubled by a conflict pitting Pakistani against Pakistani that has killed many hundreds and displaced up to 200,000 more in Malakand alone. As one army captain who had just returned from Malakand told me in Islamabad last month: “Fighting your own people is the most painful thing you can do [as a soldier].”
As a result of the agreement, the government – whose political opponents accuse it of killing its own people for the sake of its western allies – can claim it is seeking to stem the carnage.
Last week a bomb believed to have been planted by the Taliban killed a secular Pashtun leader in Peshawar, capital of the North Western Frontier Province. The same day, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a bloody attack on central Kabul, Afghanistan just a block away from the presidential palace.
Internationally there are fears that this latest arrangement – like previous peace agreements between pro-Taliban groups and the Pakistani government – will give the Taliban time to recoup losses until they are ready to fight again.
Britain’s ambassador to Pakistan warned that the agreement could “create space for further violence”, a view echoedby Nato officials in Brussels. India’s minister for external affairs said his country was monitoring the situation and called the Talibana “danger to humanity and civilisation”.
The Australian government did, however, give qualified support to the arrangement, with foreign minister Stephen Smith, currently on an official visit to Pakistan, calling it “a positive development”.
The specifics of the peace agreement are yet to be ironed out, but there are some preliminary indications. It relates to the Swat valley region of Pakistan’s northwest, a predominantly mountainous, tribal sector of the country that has been gripped by a resilient Taliban insurgency since October 2007. Maulana Fazlullah is the public face of that insurgency, although few have actually seen him.
“I haven’t had personal contact with Fazlullah, but he is my commander and I always obey him,” explained one Taliban commander I met in the lower Swat valley late last year. “Ultimately, we want Sharia over all of Pakistan, but, first of all, here [in Malakand],” he continued.
A young cleric who emerged from the madrasas of these mountainous parts preaching a return to the sharia, Fazlullah is popularly known as Maulana FM for his clandestine radio broadcasts which, since 2006, have promoted a harsh, conservative brand of Islam similar to that practised by the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan. Fazlullah has also made threatsagainst a wide range of people over the airwaves, from policemen merely seeking to enforce the law to schoolgirls whom he threatens with brutal attacks for daring to seek an education.
Maulana Sufi rejects Fazlullah’s resort to violence and has appealed to the young cleric to end his militancy. That may have something to do with Sufi’s imprisonment by Pervez Musharraf in 2002 for helping to organise young men to support the Taliban against Nato and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. A chastened Maulana Sufi was released last year after he renounced violence and publicly stated that he supported education for women and immunisation for children. The Taliban has destroyed hundreds of schools in Malakand since 2007 and vehemently opposes immunisation programmes which they believe are part of a global western-Zionist plot to sterilise the population.
Following this latest agreement, however, the line between violent and nonviolent Islamist has become dangerously blurred. The decision to implement sharia is a significant victory for the Taliban because it implicitly legitimates their cause by acknowledging that Pakistan’s tribal areas need the stamp of approval that only an Islamic political movement can provide.
The Taliban’s ideological battle, in Malakand at least, will now shift away from promoting the sharia to arguing it is best placed to administer it. That debate is unlikely to be nonviolent.
Violence still a threat in Swat Valley despite Sharia deal Zahid Hussain in Islamabad The Times February 19, 2009
Waving black and white flags and chanting “God is great!” thousands of men marched through the streets of the main town in Swat Valley yesterday, led by a hardline cleric who called for peace in return for the enforcement of Islamic law.
“I have come here to establish peace and I will not leave until this has been achieved,” Sufi Mohammad, the aging, white-bearded leader of an outlawed Islamic movement, told his supporters in Mingora, the main town in the area.
On Monday the regional government in northwest Pakistan struck a peace deal with Mr Muhammad, who was released recently after spending six years in jail for leading thousands of his supporters to Afghanistan to fight American forces in 2001.
In return for the imposition of Sharia, the pro-Taleban cleric is expected to persuade Mullah Fazlullah, his son-in-law, who is spearheading the insurgency, to lay down arms.
“It will be a good step if it ends the bloodletting,” Mohammed Jaffer, whose grocery business has suffered hugely as a result of the fighting, said as he watched from his shop doorway. It is a common sentiment in Swat, desperate for peace after years of violence. But reining in Mullah Fazlullah will be no easy task.
The firebrand cleric, 33, has turned what was once a favoured tourist destination into a byword for terror. The Taleban in Swat has conducted a campaign of beheadings, lynchings and bombings, and although Mullah Fazlullah announced a ten-day ceasefire on Sunday, analysts said that there was no indication that he would agree to put his weapons aside.
A similar deal last year collapsed in a few months and was blamed for giving the insurgents time to regroup. Many people — including Western politicians — accuse the Government of surrendering to terrorism and abdicating its responsibility to protect the lives and property of the people.
“This deal shows that the Pakistani Army has been defeated by the militants and the State is incapable of retaining control over its territory,” Athar Minallah, a leading lawyer and a former provincial minister, said.
At the end of 2007 Islamabad sent thousands of troops to quell the insurgency as the Taleban expanded its influence from the semiautonomous tribal areas into parts of the North West Frontier Province of which Swat, with a population if 1.3 million, forms a part.
Even though Swat does not border Afghanistan, Mullah Fazlullah pledges allegiance to Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Afghan Taleban movement.
Security officials say that large numbers of fighters from Waziristan, along with Uzbeks and Chechens, have joined the insurgents in Swat. That means that as many as 8,000 well-armed militants, allegedly funded by Arab charities, have been fighting government forces in Swat.
Mullah Fazlullah is also known as Mullah Radio for his sermons broadcast on a pirate radio station. He has declared a holy war against the Pakistani Government and in effect established a parallel Islamic regime.
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