Pakistan agrees to allow Islamic law in volatile northwest

The Pakistan government has agreed to allow the implementation of Islamic law in the country's turbulent northwest in an effort to mollify the Taliban and end fighting in the region.

The Pakistan government has agreed to allow the implementation of Islamic law in the country's turbulent northwest in an effort to mollify the Taliban and end fighting in the region.

A local resident distributes sweets after the government decision to implement Islamic Law on Monday. ((Sherin Zada/Associated Press))
The system of religious law — known as Shariah — will be implemented in the Malakand region. The area includes the Swat valley, once a popular tourist area that is now firmly under the grip of the Taliban.

The concession comes a day after the Taliban announced a 10-day ceasefire in the valley during peace talks between local Islamic leaders and the government.

"Those who adopted militancy should move towards peace now the agreement has been reached," Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister in North West Frontier Province, said at a news conference Monday.

Under the deal, Hoti said Pakistani forces would not initiate attacks on militants, and would only retaliate if first attacked.

Hoti also said that Shariah law — which allows Muslim clerics to advise judges in rulings — will ensure a speedier and fairer justice system.

Authorities said one of the leaders involved in the talks, a pro-Taliban cleric, would return to Swat and instruct militants there to lay down their arms. But the deal included no formal language requiring the militants to disarm.

Past peace deals with militants, including those in Swat, have failed, such as the most recent attempt in May. American, NATO and Afghan officials have criticized such accords, saying they increase suicide attacks and merely give militants time to regroup and rearm.

Friction with U.S. likely

Monday's deal is at odds with the approach favoured by the Obama administration, which has called on Pakistan's government to take tough action against the militants. "It is hard to view this as anything other than a negative development," a senior Defence Department official told the Associated Press.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations with Pakistan and because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

There was no immediate official comment from the United States on the accord.

Speaking in India, President Barack Obama's special envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, did not directly address Pakistan's peace effort in Malakand.

But he said the rise of the Taliban in Swat was a reminder that the U.S., Pakistan and India face an "an enemy which poses direct threats to our leadership, our capitals and our people."  

The Taliban have already instituted their own form of Islamic law — as they interpret it — in the Swat region. Swat Taliban spokesperson Muslim Khan welcomed the deal, telling the Associated Press that  "our whole struggle is for the enforcement of Shariah law."

"If this really brings us the implementation of Shariah, we will fully co-operate with it."

Shariah to be included in appeals process

In late 2007, the Taliban seized control of Swat in a violent uprising that pushed tens of thousands of residents from the area. The group has also reportedly destroyed more than 200 girls' schools in the area in a campaign to stomp out female education.

Shariah law has been in place in Malakand since 1994. But appeals are heard by the secular civil court in Peshawar.

Under the new agreement, the appeals process will be changed, the BBC reported, to accommodate Shariah measures. The Taliban has frequently cited a need to incorporate Shariah law into the appeals process as a reason for its insurgency.

Pakistani officials maintained that the laws do not outlaw female education or enforce other hardline measures favoured by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Several war-weary residents interviewed in the Swat area welcomed the announcement.

"We just want to see an end to this bloody fighting," said Fazal Wadood, a teacher. "We do not mind what way it comes. It is no problem if it comes through the Islamic system."

But analysts warned that the agreement played into the hands of extremists.

"This is simply a great surrender, a surrender to a handful of forces who work through rough justice and brute force," said Athar Minallah, a lawyer and civil rights activist.

"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."

Regaining Swat is a major test for Pakistan's shaky civilian government because, unlike the semi-autonomous tribal regions along the Afghan border where al-Qaeda and Taliban have long thrived, the valley is supposed to be fully under its control.

A string of recent attacks on foreigners — including the apparent beheading of a Polish geologist — have underscored the deteriorating security conditions.

With files from the Associated Press