The Pakistani kaleidoscope and the Swat ceasefire

February 24, 2009

The debate over the Pakistan government’s decision to seek peace with Taliban militants in the Swat valley by promising to introduce sharia law is proving to be like everything else in the Pakistani kaleidoscope – turn it a little bit and you see something else.

Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said the peace deal could encourage groups in other parts of the country to copy the example of the Taliban in forcing through changes. ”The bottom line is that while conflict might be arrested for the short term in one part of the country, it might escalate in other parts where groups of people acting like the Taliban could impose their will on the rest of the population in the name of changing the judicial, economic or political system,” she says. “Ultimately, this could come to redefine Pakistan’s identity completely.”

But in an article in Dawn, Kunwar Idris defended the decision by arguing that the roots of the campaign for the restoration of sharia are quite different from those fuelling the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan. Drawing on his experience as a government adviser in neighbouring Chitral, he says a form of sharia used to work well when Swat was still a princely state. ”Pakistan stands much to gain and its allies in the ‘war on terror’ have little to lose if the Sharia courts bring tranquillity and tourists back to the Swat valley,” he writes.

While India has, perhaps predictably, condemned the peace deal — Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram called it a threat to the entire region — what has been more interesting are Indian readings of the U.S. response.  Although U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke expressed concern, the U.S. response has been relatively muted.

India’s South Asia Intelligence Review worried that the deal appears to have U.S. acquiescence. It suggested Washington would watch closely what happens in Swat for implications on whether the United States too should cut its own deals with some insurgents in Afghanistan, based on what it called a false premise that it is possible to distinguish between “good” and “bad” Taliban.

Retired Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar saw a different cause for U.S. acquiescence to Pakistani decisions – he argued that Washington basically had no choice since it is so hobbled by the financial crisis and military stalemate in Afghanistan.  The United States, he said, had decided it had no option but to work closely with Pakistan, perhaps to the detriment of India. ”The message is clear: Washington will be in no mood to antagonize its Pakistani partner and Delhi is expected to keep tensions under check in its relations with Islamabad,” he wrote.

Just how closely Washington is working with Islamabad was underscored in this New York Times story saying that the United States has  more than 70 military advisers and technical specialists working in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle the Taliban.  ”It is a much larger and more ambitious effort than either country has acknowledged,” the newspaper said. And that was on top of reports, denied by Islamabad, that U.S. predator drones which have been firing missiles into tribal areas on Pakistan’s northwest, operate out of an air base on Pakistan.

So is Washington’s dependence on Pakistan making it less willing to criticise its policies? Is there method in the madness in the Swat deal that might suggest a way forward in Afghanistan too? Or is what is happening now a sign of the chaos of desperation?

(Reuters photos: Buying food in Mingora, the main town in the Swat valley; and girls back at school)

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