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Pact with Taliban calms violence in Pakistan but at what cost?

Critics say the accord could give brutal militants new safe havens. Terms of the controversial deal remain sketchy as Pakistani officials push for more U.S. military assistance.

February 24, 2009|Laura King

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A week after Pakistani authorities struck a controversial accord with Taliban militants in a violence-plagued valley in Pakistan's northwest, the terms of the deal remained clouded amid a Pakistani diplomatic push to gain American support.

The lingering confusion coincides with visits to the United States this week by two high-ranking Pakistani officials: army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Both are facing questions about the agreement in Swat, a onetime tourist jewel less than 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

Critics say any widening of the Swat accord could provide Taliban and Al Qaeda militants with a refuge even larger than their existing havens in the tribal areas along the Afghan border. There were early signs that the pact might be helping to spur similar agreements elsewhere.

A spokesman for the Pakistani military announced Monday that army operations in Swat had been halted, and a Taliban spokesman said today that the insurgents would observe an indefinite cease-fire.

At the same time, a senior Taliban commander in the nearby Bajaur tribal area, Faqir Mohammed, declared that his fighters also would observe a cease-fire, this one unilateral.

The Pakistani army, which launched a major offensive in Bajaur over the summer, has claimed a degree of success in clearing out insurgent strongholds and has already indicated that it might wrap up operations there soon.

The Swat accord has been greeted with caution by U.S. officials, who have been critical of such pacts. Previous truces have collapsed but have given the militants time to rearm and regroup.

The agreement was unveiled early last week, when officials in the North-West Frontier Province said they would allow the imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia, in Swat and surrounding districts in exchange for a cease-fire by the insurgents. In the intervening days, however, both sides have repeatedly made contradictory statements about the nature of their accord.

Critics have described the pact as a dangerous capitulation to Islamic militants who began battling government forces in Swat more than a year ago, enforcing their dominance of the valley with beheadings, floggings, school burnings and abductions.

The government has defended the truce as an interim arrangement meant to quell violence that has mainly affected the civilian population of Swat. Pakistan's civilian government also says the version of Sharia to be imposed in the valley is envisioned as a relatively mild form of a code of justice that often takes a harsh form.

The army's halt to operations in Swat was announced by military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, speaking Monday at an event in Islamabad. But he said the army reserved the right to step in again if the militants resumed hostilities.

That warning might be of little real concern to the insurgents. In the fighting of past months in Swat, a ragtag force estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 fighters loyal to radical cleric Maulana Qazi Fazlullah has managed to hold off more than 12,000 army troops. Intermittently, the insurgents have been driven out of population centers, but they filtered back whenever troops left.

Moreover, it is not at all clear that Fazlullah's most radical followers will abide by peace pledges. The pact with the government was negotiated by Fazlullah's father-in-law, a onetime Taliban commander named Maulana Sufi Mohammed. He has been holding near-daily talks with his hard-line son-in-law, but divisions appear to remain.

The provincial government too has made several statements that have been undercut by the insurgents.

Pakistani authorities said Sharia in Swat would steer clear of more draconian punishment, but as recently as Monday, half a dozen men accused of smoking hashish were publicly flogged.

As violence escalated in Swat during the last year, Faz- lullah's followers sought to impose a social code similar to that mandated by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, after the Islamic movement seized power and forced women and girls to stay at home. More than 200 girls schools in Swat were burned down or bombed in the last year as militants seized control of town after town.

Over the weekend, provincial officials said girls schools would be allowed to reopen and that the students could sit for an upcoming round of exams. But Monday, a spokesman for Mohammed told journalists that the resumption of girls' schooling was only "under consideration," not agreed upon.

The continuing danger in Swat to local officials, dozens of whom have been abducted or decapitated by the insurgents, was also illustrated over the weekend when a newly appointed senior district official was kidnapped by militants. After a tense standoff lasting some hours, the official, Kushal Khan, was freed.

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