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Archive for February 17th, 2009

Below, Ahsan Mirza, a student based in Toronto, Canada discusses Pakistan’s conflict in the FATA. Due to the fact that his best friend is helping IDPs in Swat Valley, the piece is a personal reflection on the current situation:

As I sit here comfortably in my Toronto apartment browsing my usual rotation of blogs, my best friend, comrade, and hero is working for Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders] in Swat Valley, helping conflict-affected Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). I am originally Pakistani, he is Quebecois (French-Canadian). Our friendship has been built on years of helping each other, bonding, and uniquely long conversations that I always found to be unusually profound and reflective. He has been one of the greatest sources of inspiration in my life (as he has for many others among our acquaintances).

Our friendship–my relationship with him–has given me a strange sense of urgency about the instability in Pakistan. I have many childhood friends in Pakistan, many relatives, and even family members. But for some reason, this cross-ethnic, cross-cultural, cross-religious bond speaks so differently to what this conflict means, about what is at stake.

Sitting so far away and viewing the conflict through the lens of the media, it is difficult to grasp the human element of this conflict. Human lives go beyond statistical death tolls. Families are destroyed. Friendships that have taken years to form and evolve can be ended in an instant. Dreams and aspirations are being crushed. The hope for the future, the infinite promise of life beyond the present, the desire to see a loved one – simple and universally fundamental human aspirations are at stake.

Just a couple of weeks ago, two of my friend’s MSF colleagues were killed in fighting in Swat. At the same time, the 72-hour deadline on John Solecki‘s life (what a tragic pun!) draws to an end. (The deadline was extended on Monday for an unspecified amount of time). This followed the beheading of Piotr Stanczak, a Polish engineer working in Balochistan. Countless others have been collateral victims of US air strikes, Pakistani army actions, and militant attacks. There are open and growing black markets of US Military Equipment proliferating in Peshawar. Last Tuesday, the Financial Times dedicated a full page and a half to Pakistan’s Febrile Frontier (a rarity only a few years ago).

With each passing day, I try to fight off the feeling of being more and more desensitized to the news stories coming out of Pakistan. When faced with the inevitability of helplessness and the feeling that there is no solution, the human psyche adopts the path of ignorance.

Yesterday, the pro-Taliban militants in Swat declared a 10-day ceasefire as a goodwill gesture towards peace negotiations being carried out by the NWFP government. For some reason, there is no optimism that this ceasefire will be a means for peace and prosperity that has so far eluded the people of Pakistan.

The ceasefire is a highly desperate and hopeless act by the Pakistan government to restore peace to the valley. The agreement also signifies a resignation to the fact that the pro-Taliban elements and ideology have moved beyond the Tribal Areas and acquired a stranglehold over one of Pakistan’s four provinces (if not two). Indeed, it was exactly one year ago, in February 2008, that the Pakistan Army entered a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The peace deal seemed doomed to fail right from the start, but who would have thought that the Swat Valley, not FATA, would be the subject of the next peace deal.

What impact will Sharia law have on the inhabitants of Swat Valley? Pakistani officials have said that “the new system would have nothing in common with the draconian rule of the Taliban,” and that “the people demanded this and they deserve it.” Somehow I find this hard to believe. In January, BBC News ran a regular “Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl” in which a grade 7 schoolgirl from Swat wrote her reflections as the Taliban announced and then executed a moratorium on girl’s education in the Valley. Reading the diary would bring tears to any readers’ eyes. What will be the fate of these schools under the new law? To me, the closing of these girls schools is only symptomatic of what will happen under such an extremist regime.

In a press conference announcing the truce, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister for the North West Frontier Province, spoke of a legal vacuum that existed and is now going to be filled by the new Sharia law. To me it seems that the bigger vacuum is a psychological and spiritual vacuum in the social psyche that yearns for answers and guidance.

We (Pakistanis, Muslims) often point the finger at “the West,” claiming that they are not addressing the root of the problem, be it in Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan. However, the irony is, it seems, that we haven’t ourselves understood the root of the problem. And the chickens have come home to roost.

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[Residents in Mingora, Swat distribute sweets in celebration of the deal]

On Monday, Pakistan agreed to suspend military offensives and impose Islamic law in the Malakand region [which includes Swat Valley], “making a gesture it hopes will help calm the Taliban insurgency while rejecting Washington’s call for tougher measures against militants,” reported the Associated Press. According to the news agency, “A U.S. defense official called the deal ‘a negative development,’ and some Pakistani experts expressed skepticism the truce would decrease violence.” Athar Minallah, a lawyer and civil rights activist, told the AP, “This is simply a great surrender, a surrender to a handful of forces who work through rough justice and brute force…Who will be accountable for those hundreds of people who have been massacred in Swat? And they go and recognize these forces as a political force. This is pathetic.”

Today, a number of news agencies released op-eds commenting on the development. Several included a background of the FATA and Swat Valley in their pieces. Shahan Mufti at Global Post noted that Swat’s history is similar to the tribal areas in some ways. Like the tribal region, Swat was also once an autonomous area, with independent judicial and political systems. In 1969, however, Swat Valley joined Pakistan as regular territory. Mufti wrote:

Part of what the Swati people lost with joining Pakistan were their local judicial system of “qazi” courts, which closely followed Islamic law. And the British styled Pakistani judicial system has never completely established itself in the region. Swat has had periodic uprisings through the decades to restore the old order and through the 90’s there were similar deals between the government and armed political groups to restore the old law.

He added,

The most recent cease-fire is seen by some as a tactical move by the government to simmer down fighting as legislative elections approach in about two weeks and a street protest movement against the government is planned for mid-March. Some others say that the government is bowing to pressure from militants.  Regardless, the move is likely to be supported by many Pakistanis and the government might win some much needed points for restoring peace — if this really does lead to peace.

Shaheen Sardar Ali raised an interesting question in today’s Dawn:

A few basic questions demand answers. Are the people of Swat and Malakand a different breed of Muslims to the rest of the province and the country? One hopes not. If we are all God-fearing Muslims and if Sharia as defined by Sufi Mohammad et al, is the only way forward for peace and prosperity, then ought we not, as a country, embrace it? Why try it out only in Malakand; why not simultaneously in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and Multan? Democracy and the will of the people carries no meaning if gun-toting individuals can legitimately take over a population.

The Nation also underscored the issue of the government allowing a parallel legal system to operate in Malakand, noting that “it would be bad practice,” for a system to be introduced “over and above” the Pakistani Parliament. The editors also differentiated between the overarching Taliban organization, TNSM, [who operate over Malakand Division] and its sister organization’s actions in Swat. Will the Taliban in Swat, under Mullah Fazlullah, continue to deprive young girls of an education? The Nation noted,

The hydra-headed militancy in the region does not speak with one voice. Schools continued to burn during the last peace move in Swat and the Taliban accused other groups to be involved. Will the agreement be acceptable to all militant groups? Will some of them not continue to fight till Sharia of their liking is imposed all over the country?

According to BBC News’ M Ilyas Khan, Monday’s development “inspired both jubilation and widespread concern.” He noted, “Human rights groups fear that parallel systems of justice lead to social fragmentation and will hurt civil society in the long run.”

Nevertheless, he reported, many people in Swat were relieved to hear of a temporary end to the fighting. An acquaintance of Khan wrote to him, “The sun is out after weeks of winter rains, and the people are celebrating on the streets, because there are no soldiers on the streets and no mullahs in the back alleys.” Munir, an administrator in Swat, wrote in a BBC Diary, “On Saturday our family was about to leave the village but when we heard that the government was going to promulgate Islamic Sharia law in Swat we were very happy, very excited. We decided to stay. It might not mean the end of fear but it will mean the end of violence here.” Ilyas Khan added, “…there is considerable war fatigue in Swat, and people would be happy to live under any system provided there is peace.”

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