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A long winter in Swat

A long winter in Swat

Author: Murtaza Razvi
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: February 18, 2009

The Swat valley's steady descent into chaos, from a bustling leisure tourism destination up until the '90s to a cultural wasteland now controlled by a bunch of medieval-minded Taliban, tells a sorry tale of state complacence, as it continues to fail. Monday's agreement signed between the government and the local Taliban in Swat will change little for the wronged people of the valley; it only puts a stamp of approval over the sealing of their fate. The mullahs have won this battle as the government buckles under pressure.

Eleven months into office, this government presided over by Asif Ali Zardari has built a dubious record of saying one thing and doing the other. Examples abound, in domestic and foreign affairs. But let's stick to the latest bungling: two days before the government agreed to a ceasefire deal with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Swat, Zardari had assured the nation that fighting off the Taliban was the only way forward.

The deal struck in the valley is dangerous in its implications. It has virtually made the entire area over to the Taliban, where their hitherto illegal writ in the garb of Islamic Sharia laws is now being accepted as a fait accompli. Under the deal, those forced to seek justice from Sharia courts will now have no right of appeal in a higher civil court. How could you have two parallel justice systems running in the same country? And knowing justice, Taliban style, leaves one with cold feet. The intolerant and brutal tribal warlords know no mercy, and have no regard for human life and dignity. Summary executions of men and women who do not subscribe to their brand of Islam are the only justice they practise.

The father-in-law-son-in-law duo of Sufi Mohammad and Fazlullah have acted like bandits for years now, terrorising the traditionally peace-loving and docile Swatis. Taliban vigilantes under their command have been blowing up public infrastructure, including the Swat airport, power houses and several tourist resorts. They have been beheading their opponents in public execution stunts, destroying girls' schools and colleges, killing barbers who dare to offer a shaving service to men; enforcing a dress code, systematically brutalising women who step out of the house and burning down music shops have been their preoccupation. Is this the vision the government has for a progressive Pakistan, free of terrorism?

The people of Swat deserve better, not least because in last year's election they had voted for the same secular parties, the People's Party and the Awami National Party (PPP and ANP), which have now buckled under pressure and bargained their electorates' basic rights away. It is some measure of their medieval mindset that after declaring war on the state, the Taliban had forced vehicles entering the Swat valley to drive on the right hand (wrong) side of the road because driving on the left was supposedly un-Islamic. So are women's education and men without beards. Swat was the country's favourite tourist destination dotted with pre-Islamic national heritage sites until the two clerics started flexing their muscles. This is not the first time the government has struck a so-called peace deal with them. The Benazir Bhutto government back in 1994 had also reached a similar agreement whereby Sharia laws were promulgated in the region. Then, in 1999, the Sharif government had offered more if the mullahs refrained from recruiting young men for jihad in Afghanistan. The Musharraf regime, too, soft-peddled the issue, allowing an illegal anti-state propaganda FM radio station to continue, but there was no end to the demands made by the clerics and their vigilante goons who went around enforcing Sharia at gunpoint. Since 2007, there has been utter lawlessness in the valley; the army was reluctantly forced to launch a clean-up operation after the local police ran for their lives.

If the past is any guide, it's only a matter of time as to when the current agreement will collapse. But more important, the signing of the ceasefire deal from a position of weakness on the part of the government has sent out a very wrong signal. It is an unequivocal failure, due largely to the lack of will in Islamabad to contain militarism inside Pakistan and its spill-over elsewhere. Now that the Taliban have pressured the Frontier's provincial government and Islamabad into acquiescence in one part of the country, what is to stop them from replicating their designs elsewhere?

The ANP-led Frontier government has been totally inept in dealing with the emerging threat, one whose very target is the ANP itself. It has been very sheepish and rather embarrassed about the ongoing military operations in parts of the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), which are the hotbed of Islamist terrorism that eyes the whole wide world, far beyond Pakistan's own borders.

The ceasefire, even if it holds for a while, will give way to more acts of lawlessness as defined by the constitution of Pakistan. As the Taliban go about enforcing Sharia, there is bound to be untold misery caused to the hapless people at its receiving end. All kinds of rights abuses will be instituted as part of keeping order; women will be among the most disadvantaged. And what's to stop the Taliban from regrouping as the ceasefire lasts, and expanding their writ to the neighbouring districts?

These are troubling signs of the government's capitulation before a public enemy against whom it has failed to protect its citizens. The Taliban and the like need to be weeded out; there cannot be any rules of engagement with such rogue elements. No responsible state can barter away its citizens' rights to a group of bandits who only believe in violence as their tool of operation. The Taliban can lay no claim to being in the mainstream of politics because it is not the ballot but the bullet on which their power rests. The state is acting against its own citizens by according such elements any recognition by signing the so-called peace deal with them, and that too without passing it through parliament.

- The writer is an editor with 'Dawn', Karachi

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