In security-related developments this week, media outlets reported on a “breakthrough” in negotiations with Islamist militants in Swat, [see this past post for further background on the situation in Swat Valley]. The NWFP government on Tuesday announced that insurgents “agreed to to extend a ceasefire till the next round of talks,” reported Dawn newspaper. However, in return, the government agreed to implement Islamic law [Shariah] in the Malakand region [which encompasses one third the area of the NWFP]. The Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, specified in its coverage:
Provincial officials negotiating with representatives of militant leader Maulana Fazlullah said they had agreed in principle to implement previously drafted regulations allowing Islamic scholars to offer guidance to judges in the Malakand and Swat areas. The decision did not specify the extent to which Islamic law would be promoted or required in courts, and officials said they would work out details later.
Although many media headlines blared, “Shariah Law in Swat Agreed,” a development that is significant in light of the secular party currently in power, Afrasiab Khattak, a senior official of the NWFP’s ruling Awami National Party, was quick to assure reporters, “We are not introducing any new law…These will be same courts like anywhere in Pakistan, headed by normal civil and district judges.” The NWFP Senior Minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour has noted the Shariah-compliant system would be enforced in Swat within one month. Despite the assurances from the ANP, the advent of Shariah law in some capacity is arguably problematic for this region. However, the establishment of Islamic law in Swat, as well as the release of prisoners taken into custody during the insurgency, and the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the area are some of the main demands of the negotiating militants.
As the talks have continued, several of these demands have already been addressed. On Wednesday, media outlets, including the Daily Times, reported that the Pakistan Army exchanged prisoners with the local Taliban in South and North Waziristan. Military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told the news agency, “Twelve security personnel – five army jawans and seven Frontier Corps personnel – were swapped for over 30 Taliban prisoners.” The News reported, ” [Abbas] said the government had already accepted the major demands of the militants, including the removal of all roadside checkpoints, withdrawal of the Pakistan Army from the tribal areas, Darra Adamkhel and Swat, compensation to the affected people and release of all the suspected militants held during the military operations.” He added the government had already begun calling back Army troops from the “[Beitullah] Mehsud-inhabited hilltops” in the frontier areas. The AFP, in its coverage, noted the Pakistani military termed the movement a “readjustment” of forces, rather than a “withdrawal,” adding, “The moves were mainly to facilitate the return of people who had fled the area due to previous unrest.” The AFP added that Abbas “declined to comment on whether the troop moves were linked to the peace talks with militants.”
In its report, the Associated Press underlined the reactions of American, British, and NATO officials to these developments. According to the news agency, “Washington and London are co-funding a plan to flood the impoverished tribal belt, a possible hiding place for al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, with development aid in a bid to dry up support for extremism.” However, they view past peace agreements with militants as failures and warn that any future accords must be strictly enforced. The AP also cited statements made by NATO spokesman James Appathurai, who told reporters in Brussels, “The principle concern is … the deals being struck between the Pakistani government and extremist groups in the tribal areas may be allowing them … to have safe havens, rest, reconstitute and then move across the border.” Although he asserted that NATO did not want to engage in the internal policies of Pakistan, they “have every right to and will convey our concerns about what is happening inside Afghanistan,” where attacks in the eastern regional command of the country were up 50 percent in April.
An alleged U.S. missile strike in Pakistan’s FATA yesterday that killed 12 people could be further problematic for anti-American perceptions in the region. Today, Pakistani militants vowed to avenge the attack, blaming the incident on the United States. According to an AP report, “Residents said they saw a U.S. aircraft flying in the area before two explosions rocked the village.” A photographer from the AFP said more than 1,000 tribesmen gathered to bury eight people in Damadola, while four more were buried in neighboring villages. The news agency reported, “Shouting ‘Death to America’ and waving klaashnikovs, the mourners vowed they would avenge the attacks from the U.S. forces across the border, the photographer witnessed.” Such reactions are certain to influence the already-poor perceptions of the United States in the region and may have further consequences for foreign troops located across the border. [Image from the Associated Press]