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 Following weeks of negotations, [see most recent post on the talks], Pakistan’s coalition government signed a 15-point peace deal with “pro-Taliban” militants in Swat Valley on Wednesday. The announcement garnered media attention today, and the Associated Press deemed the development, “a breakthrough for a policy that Western officials worry could take the pressure off Taliban and Al Qaeda hardliners.”  BBC News, in its coverage, reported that the provincial government in the NWFP agreed to pull troops out of the area “as the situation improves” and release prisoners, adding that authorities “say they will also allow the militants to impose Sharia law in Swat…” In return for the government concessions, the Associated Press noted, “Militants agreed to recognize the government’s authority, halt suicide and bomb attacks and hand over any foreign militants in the area.” They also reportedly agreed not to target girls’ schools, music shops and barbers, “all targets of the hardline militants who follow an interpretation of Islam echoing the 1996-2001 Taliban regime in Afghanistan,” the AFP reported. NWFP minister and committee member Wajid Ali Khan told the news agency today, “The agreement was signed today between the government committee and representatives of local Taliban. We are very positive that this agreement will end violence and ensure lasting peace in the region.”

The AP report underlined, “The deal is the first since a new government came to power promising to negotiate to end violence in the area.” However, the negotation process has faced opposition from U.S., British, and NATO officials, who have criticized previous Pakistan deals with militants, alleging they  led to an increase in suicide attacks on international and Afghan troops across the border. On Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said the United States had advised Pakistan “not to negotiate” with militants, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We have real reservations about negotiated agreements with extremists…There is a lot at stake here and we have made the point repeatedly.” Dawn reported the U.S. official “also indicated that Islamabad did not consult Washington before making the new peace move as the U.S. learned about it from the media.” However, following these statements, Negroponte assured Pakistan’s leaders that the U.S. opposition to the proposed deal “should not be seen as a rejection of the country’s democratic set-up,” noting, “We are now working equally hard with Pakistan’s leaders, including the moderate Awami National Party which won elections in the NWFP, to explore how we can help the new government of Pakistan extend the authority of the Pakistani state to the tribal areas.” So far, a U.S. statement following the signing of today’s peace agreement has not been released.

India and Pakistan flags

The aforementioned peace deal is actually the second agreement initiated by the newly elected government this week. On Tuesday, following two days of bilateral talks, Pakistan signed an accord with neighbor and long-time rival India, “granting greater access to prisoners in each other’s jails,” reported the BBC today. The News quoted Pakistani Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who said “there would be positive progress on Sir Creek and Siachin soon and detailed discussions were also held on ways to relax visa [restrictions] and ‘to improve the environment’ between India and Pakistan.” Although “talks are progressing on a constructive manner on the issue of Kashmir,” there are still many issues to be discussed, reported the Associated Press. A follow-up round of talks is scheduled to take place in July.

Despite daily reports on the constant obstacles facing the ruling coalition, [see today’s earlier post], it is both notable and somewhat refreshing that there can still be progress on other fronts, and that the issues facing Pakistan are not necessarily mutually exclusive. [Images from the BBC, AFP]

 

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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]

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