This week the Pakistani government woke up to its worst nightmare and promptly dreamed up a plan which is likely to make things worse, Pakistan is now sleepwalking to disaster.
The nightmare is an Islamist victory. It has been partially handed to the Taliban on an altar, upon which has been sacrificed the soul of Pakistan.
The government has signed a deal with the Pakistan Taliban allowing Sharia law to replace state law for Malakand Agency. Malakand is a huge area in the North West Frontier, which includes Swat province, just 100 miles from the capital. In addition, the Army, in an admission of defeat, will ‘suspend operations’ across the region bordering Afghanistan.
This means that the Pakistani Government does not control, militarily or legally, a fifth of the country.
Sharia has long existed in the tribal areas; what is so shocking is that the Government, in a forlorn attempt at placating the religious revolutionaries, has caved in and lost control of Swat province.
The Government sought to reassure the public, saying that Swat was a conservative area where people had long complained that the bureaucracy of civil law was slowing down justice. That is correct but it hides the real truth. Swat, along with the North West Frontier (NWF), voted for relative moderates in last year’s elections. And being conservative does not mean wanting in power the people who in the past year have bombed 180 girls’ schools, murdered political opponents, beheaded people in public and caused tens of thousands to flee.
What the Pakistan government has done is ‘confuse’ a minority of men with beards and guns, who shout loudly and butcher opponents, with ‘the people’. Several websites in the UK and even some mainstream commentators (of the few who noticed the story) went along with the idea that the will of the people was being obeyed as opposed to the will of the barrel of a gun. They are ‘Osama’s Useful Idiots’.
The US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, happened to be in neighbouring India the same day the deal was done. He told his hosts: “What happened in Swat demonstrates a key point….for the first time in 60 years since independence, your country and Pakistan and the U.S. all face an enemy that poses a threat to our leadership, our capitals and our people,”
He said ‘capitals’ in the knowledge that Swat lies within 100 miles of Islamabad. What the Pakistani government is asking people to believe is that having won their victory, the Taliban will put down their guns and content themselves with ruling a fifth of the country.
What many people fear is that the Taliban will take the deal and try to move on, with the aim of ending up in the capital itself.
History suggests the latter.
There is the possibility that the deal will placate the Talibs, who traditionally are more concerned with the local than the global; but now behind them lie the ties with the Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the previously alien philosophy of global jihad. Besides, even if it does halt the advance of Islamism in Pakistan, that still leaves the women and girls of Swat forced into the burkha and out of public life.
The Americans are furious. They know if the army ‘suspends operations’ it creates a larger space for the Taliban to seek safe haven and train, from where it can launch attacks against US forces in Afghanistan.
Such is the intertwined relationship between NATO’s war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s war against the Taliban that the region is now known in foreign policy circles as Af-Pak.
The Swat deal means the US forces may be busy on both sides of the border.