Is Pakistan going soft in its support for the “war on terror”? That is the fear in the US following the announcement of a “peace deal” brokered between the Pakistani government and Pakistani supporters of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
At the behest of the US, Pakistan’s military has been engaged in a bloody offensive on the border with Afghanistan against the “Pakistani Taliban” – fighters who target Nato operations and resist the Pakistani army. Since 2007 more than 120,000 troops have been shelling towns in a vain attempt to rout the rebels.
But it is civilians who have borne the brunt of the assault. Many thousands have been killed. Amnesty International estimates that fighting has forced up to 500,000 people from the area to flee.
The relentless campaign has generated hatred of the government among the people of the Swat valley. Earlier this month hundreds of thousands joined a march that stretched for 20 kilometres, chanting anti-government and pro-Taliban slogans.
Yet it seems that no matter how many people are displaced, Pakistan’s military is incapable of defeating its opponents. The government’s talks with Islamist leader Sufi Muhammad – who despite having fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan is regarded as a “moderate” – are recognition that it cannot win the war.
In exchange for Sufi Muhammad brokering a ceasefire with more hardline Islamist forces the government is offering to implement a version of Islamic sharia law in the border areas.
Embarrassingly for the US, the negotiations come at precisely the moment when president Barack Obama has chosen to put his personal stamp on the conflict in Afghanistan by committing thousands of extra troops.
“We’re troubled and confused about what happened in Swat,” says US special envoy Richard Holbrooke. “It is not an encouraging trend. The people who took over in Swat are very bad people.”
It is easy to see why he is worried. Any deal that emboldens the Pakistani Taliban will likely make the job of “pacifying” southern Afghanistan even harder. But there are other problems too.
The Pakistani government has sought to win public backing for its military operations by raising the possibility of a Taliban takeover of Pakistan. Ministers have insisted that democracy is in peril and that if the Islamists were not checked, they would soon advance on cities such as Karachi and Islamabad.
This reasoning convinced many liberals, and even some left wingers, to support the government’s bombing campaign. The decision to allow sharia is, therefore, a confusing and bitter blow to those who thought they were joining the government in a fight against extremism.
Legal recognition for sharia is hardly new – various Pakistani governments have done deals over the issue in the past. In theory, it allows for religious co-judges to sit in on cases and does not replace Pakistan’s official legal code.
Anger at the sluggishness of the current legal system means there is widespread support for sharia in the areas where it will be introduced. But many civil society organisations fear that this will be merely the first step and that an emboldened Islamist movement will soon demand far more.
For its part, the government hopes that by coming to an agreement with Sufi Muhammad, the radicals can be brought to heel. But it is playing a dangerous game for extremely high stakes.
Islamist organisations have so far been able to articulate growing anger at the disastrous military offensive, while reflecting the rage of sections of the middle classes and the rural poor at inflation, unemployment and the collapsing economy.
But as small-time capitalists and traders themselves, the leadership of the Islamist groups have no answer to the growing crisis that is crippling the poor.
A power sharing arrangement between the various Islamist groups in Swat and the wealthy minority that runs the Pakistani establishment will do nothing to protect the interests of millions of workers and peasants.