Analysis: Pakistan peace agreement cedes ground to the Taliban
Pakistan's political and military leaders have endorsed a peace agreement that allows for the imposition of sharia, or Islamic law in a large portion of the Northwest Frontier Province and ends the government's military operation in Swat. The agreement will lead to a further deterioration of the situation in Pakistan and is a direct threat to the security of the Pakistani state.
The agreement, known as the Malakand Accord, was reached between the provincial government and Sufi Mohammed, the spiritual leader of the outlawed Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad's Sharia Law, on Feb. 15. The next day the peace agreement was made official, and the Taliban forces under the command of Mullah Fazlullah, Sufi's son-in-law, agreed to a 10-day cease fire.
Sufi Mohammed claims to have eschewed violence after being released from prison last year as a condition of a similar failed peace agreement in Swat. Sufi led more than 10,000 Pakistanis into Afghanistan after the US invasion in 2001. Sufi recently said he hates democracy, sought to impose Islamic rule throughout the world, and said the Afghan Taliban were "an ideal example" for other countries to follow.
"From the very beginning, I have viewed democracy as a system imposed on us by the infidels. Islam does not allow democracy or elections," Sufi told Deutsche Presse-Agentur just days before the Malakand Accord was signed. "I believe the Taliban government formed a complete Islamic state, which was an ideal example for other Muslim countries."
Fazlullah is the deputy of Baitullah Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban and has waged a two-year campaign of suicide attacks as well as bombings of schools and much of Swat's infrastructure. Fazlullah broadcasts radical sermons on his illegal FM radio station, where he lauds Osama bin Laden and preaches against polio vaccination, which he claims is a Western plot to infect the Pashtun people with the AIDS virus.
Government endorses Malakand Accord
Pakistani government officials are denying that the agreement cedes a large swath of territory to the Taliban or is a sign that the government has lost its writ in the Northwest Frontier Province. Several leaders rose to the defense of the Malakand Accord, saying the agreement was part of Pakistan's enhanced counterinsurgency program that has been designed to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said the peace agreement "will be beneficial for the country." He claimed the Malakand Accord is part of the "three Ds" strategy of dialogue, development and deterrence, and the agreement is intended to defeat the rise of Islamist extremism in the insurgency-infested northwest.
President Zardari said the Malakand Accord was part of Pakistan's counterterrorism strategy and the government is "coming up with the special package" to help defeat extremism and restore peace. Zardari also said the final agreement will not be signed until peace is restored in the northwest. Zardari's statements are 180 degrees from last week, when he said the Taliban must be defeated through military means.
Sherry Rehman, the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, was on the defensive, clearly concerned the agreement will reflect poorly on the government.
"It is in no way a sign of the state's weakness," Rehman said.
"The public will of the population of the Swat region is at the centre of all efforts and it should be taken into account while debating the merits of this agreement," Rehman insisted. The decision to implement sharia "will bring speedy justice at the doorstep of the common man." In a later interview, Rehman said the Malakand Accord was part of the government's policy of development and deterrence.
Afrasiyab Khattak, a leader of the Awami National Party, which administers the Northwest Frontier Province, denied that the imposition of sharia law would herald a Taliban-like regime, but instead he insisted the agreement will improve the legal standings of the citizens of Malakand.
The Pakistani Army has also signed off on the agreement and said it would honor the 10-day ceasefire. The military was also consulted prior to the peace agreement, Inter-Service Public Relations spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said. But it is unclear if the military was involved in negotiations, as it has in the past peace agreements.
Malakand Accord similar to past peace deals
While the Pakistani government has rushed to defend the Malakand Accord, the agreement mirrors past peace deals that collapsed shortly after they were signed. Like the past agreements, the current one is likely to fail. But the government's willingness to negotiate with the Taliban is eroding the viability of the Pakistani state.
Since winning the election last spring, the Zardari-Gilani government has entered a series of peace agreements with the Taliban throughout the tribal areas and the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province. Between March and July of 2008, the government negotiated seven agreements with the Taliban in North Waziristan, Swat, Dir, Bajaur, Malakand, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, and Hangu. Negotiations were also underway in South Waziristan, Kohat, and Mardan before fighting in Swat and Bajaur broke out, effectively ending the talks.
The past peace agreements, which were started under former President Pervez Musharraf's regime in 2004, have served only to grant the Taliban the time it needed to regroup from fighting with the Pakistani military. While the military has been unable or unwilling to dislodge the Taliban from its safe havens, the Taliban had little time to recoup losses and coordinate efforts. The peace agreements gave the Taliban the respite needed to reorganize.
During the "peace periods" the Taliban would use the time granted to add new recruits, rest and re-arm its forces, and consolidate control over the new-found territory. The peace agreements also served to embolden and restore the morale of the Taliban while demoralizing those who fought against the Taliban and live in the regions. The Taliban would conduct ruthless purges of anyone expected of supporting the government. Hundreds of tribal leaders and others have been murdered and often were mutilated. Almost all would have notes labeling them as "US spies" pinned to their chests.
Despite the government's objections to criticism of the current agreement, the current Malakand Accord has granted the Taliban control over a region that encompasses more than 1/3 of the Northwest Front Province, effectively cementing the Taliban's control over most of the province and the tribal areas.
The Taliban's recruiting base has almost doubled, as has its taxation base. The Malakand Division, which is made up of the districts of Malakand, Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir, and Chitral, has a population of more that 4.3 million, according to the 1998 census. The Taliban effectively control the tribal areas (population estimated at 6.5 million in 1998) and many of the bordering districts with millions more. The Taliban also have a strong presence or influence in nearly all of the other districts in the province.
A senior US military intelligence official who has tracked the situation in Pakistan's tribal areas described the Malakand Accord as "a major win for the bad guys."
The Taliban have been in effective control of Swat and most of the surrounding regions, the official told The Long War Journal, noting that the Pakistanis living in the region have lived under Fazlullah's brand of sharia since 2007. "The government has simply declined to stop contesting the matter," the official said.
"What is happening there is a microcosm for what Tehrik-e-Taliban plans to do to the whole of Pakistan," the official said, referring to Baituallah Mehsud's Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan.
There is evidence the Taliban is beginning to branch out beyond the Northwest Frontier Province as well as from areas in Baluchistan that have remained quietly under Taliban control. The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the Punjab districts of Dera Ghazi Khan and Mianwali over the past several weeks. The attacks have prompted the Punjab provincial government to consider closing down its borders with the two provinces.