Making nice with the Taliban

Natasha Fatah on the controversial deal to introduce sharia law in Pakistan's Swat valley.
A crowd of supporters gather around pro-Taliban cleric Sufi Muhammad and his caravan of some 300 vehicles as he arrives in Mingora to negotiate with the Taliban in the battle-scarred Swat Valley on Feb. 17, 2009. (Sherin Zada/Associated Press)

"Nazia" is originally from the Swat valley in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, the place where Pakistan authorities recently offered to allow Islamic law if Taliban militants lay down their arms.

She knows the danger of these militants. When she speaks to her family in Swat on the phone every day from her new home in Canada, the sound of gunfire and bombs resonate in the background.

A Pakistani woman holds a copy of the Muslim holy book during a rally against the Taliban and Islamic militants in the southern city of Karachi on Feb. 6, 2009. The rally was organized to protest against the Taliban destroying girls schools in the troubled area of Swat in the northern part of the country. (Fareed Khan/Associated Press)

Niaza (who asked that her real name be withheld for fear of reprisal from militants here as well as in Pakistan) has lost many friends in the past months to the Taliban's brutality. That includes an uncle who was murdered when the Taliban accused of him of being a spy for Pakistani intelligence.

She fears for the lives of those trapped in the midst of a bloody ideological war in the Swat.

Two weeks ago, Nazia joined a rally in Toronto organized by the Pakhtunkhwa Peace Forum. It was a gathering of ethnic Pashtoons from Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, pleading for peace in their countries of origin.

Along with their pleas, the protestors were emphatic that they did not want sharia (Islamic) law to be imposed in northern Pakistan, a proposal they knew was on the table to try to end the fighting.

But the very next day the North West Frontier Provincial government, led by Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti, unveiled the controversial peace deal with the Taliban.

As part of the agreement, which was negotiated by both the provincial and national governments with the pro-Taliban political figure Sufi Mohammed, Pakistan will allow for the implementation of sharia law in the region, something that the Taliban happily welcomes.

Romantic destination

Swat was once a romantic destination for many Western tourists. The sheer beauty of its lakes, green valleys and mountainous backdrop attracted both backpackers and blue bloods alike. Some even affectionately referred to it as "The Switzerland of Pakistan."

Pakistan's troubled Swat region in the North West Frontier Provinces. (CBC)

But there are no more tourists in Swat these days because for the past two years, the Taliban has been gaining control of the area. Government accounts claim that over 1,600 Pakistanis have died in this period, mostly in the northwest region, because of Taliban violence.

The Pakistani military has been fighting back, but in January of this year it was obvious that the Taliban had seized pretty much complete control of a province whose southern tip is only a few hundred kilometres from the Pakistan capital Islamabad.

Caught in the crossfire between the military and the militants have been the people of Swat, people like Nazia's family. Millions have fled their homes looking for refuge elsewhere and many have been murdered, often by public beheadings, a measure the Taliban has employed to keep the locals in line.

The military wasn't winning and something had to be done. That something is the controversial peace proposal.

Its central plank is the promise of sharia law to address long-standing local grievances over a justice system that is perceived as too slow and unfair.

But at this point, it is not clear whether the Swat Taliban will really disarm or even allow for girls to receive an education. Up until last week the Taliban was bombing girl schools.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the provincial government has now proposed giving 30,000 rifles to the local citizenry so they can help keep the Taliban in line.

Afrasiab Khattak, the president of the ruling ANP political party in the region — someone who narrowly escaped a Taliban bombing last year — said that the people there are pleased with the compromise between the government and the Taliban.

Nazia is not so sure. She has seen the images of people in Swat rejoicing over this peace proposal but she says that we should not be fooled by these images.

"If you give me two options: to be sick or to be killed," she says, "then for sure I will choose not to die."

A foot in the door

While Khattak says this decision will bring some short-term peace in the area, many Pakistanis — not to mention Barack Obama's government in Washington — are worried about the long-term impact on the country.

Asma Jahangir, the head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says the deal has "given a taste of victory to the militants."

She goes on to argue that the government has made a terrible compromise in which the Taliban not only gain control over territory, through terror, but would now be legitimized through the institution of justice.

This will leave the door open for more radicalism to grow, she says. "This is like the United Nations of militants running Swat."

There is a growing fear in some circles in Pakistan now that the Taliban area of control will only spread if this deal goes through.

In fact, many in the Pashtoon community, Nazia among them, believe that the Pakistani military is behind this deal with the Taliban in order to destabilize the provincial government in the northwest and use that instability to reclaim its grip over the national government.

All sorts of wild rumours emanate from Pakistan these days. But Pakistanis in the north and south, and even here in Canada, agree that this is a pivotal time when governments are making deals with the Taliban.

Many fear that this deal will lead to destabilization, if not the end of Pakistan as we know it today.