Mohammad Sajjad/AP
Pakistani officials meet with Islamic militants and Taliban representatives in Peshawar,

Observers Worry About Institution of Sharia Law in Pakistani Region

February 17, 2009 12:36 PM
by Josh Katz
Pakistan’s agreement with militants and Taliban members to implement Islamic law in the northwest part of the country has caused concern about Pakistan’s ability to crack down on militants.

Pakistan’s Accord With Militants Faces Criticism

On Monday, Pakistan agreed to halt its military offensives and permit the installation of Shariah law in a chaotic northwestern region of the country in the hopes of ushering in peace there. A U.S. defense official criticized the deal as “a negative development” and a human rights activist called it “a great surrender” to the insurgents, the Associated Press writes in an MSNBC article.

But on Tuesday, Pakistani officials defended their actions and claimed they were not making concessions to Taliban militants. “It is in no way a sign of the state’s weakness. 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,” Information Minister Sherry Rehman said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Militant leader Maulana Fazlullah has launched an insurgency against the Pakistani government in Swat for about two years, and many observers say Pakistan is now caving in to his pressure to install Islamic law in the Malakand district of the country. Swat was once known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan” for its tourist-friendly ski resorts. The agreement on Monday was signed by Fazlullah’s more moderate father-in-law, AFP reports.

Pakistan indicated that the Taliban would tell militants in the area to disarm because of the agreement, but, according to AP, “there was no mention in the agreement of any need for extremists to give up their weapons.” The Swat Taliban did not say it agreed to permanently disarm but said it would observe a 10-day ceasefire.

“Our whole struggle is for the enforcement of Sharia law,” Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said. “If this really brings us the implementation of Sharia, we will fully cooperate with it,” AP reports.

Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister in North West Frontier Province, said the new Shariah law would allow the creation of an Islamic appeals court and would enable Muslim clerics to counsel judges. According to Hoti, the new system would be faster and more just than the system currently in place, “which dates back to British colonial times,” AP writes.

Pakistani officials say the new system of Islamic rule is completely different from the laws governing Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 under the control of the Taliban, “during which thieves’ hands were amputated and adulterers were stoned to death,” according to The Washington Post. Instead, the new system in the Malakand district will have an appeals process, unlike the Afghan Taliban form of justice.

Critics argue that militants might attempt to spread Islamic law to other regions of Pakistan as a result of the recent deal.

American drone attacks against insurgents operating in Pakistani territory has generated controversy in the country, and U.S. President Barack Obama has said he would take a stronger stand against such militants. The accord came as a drone missile attack killed more than 30 people in the area of Kurram. “The second such attack in three days, it came amid increasing protests by opposition groups that the government is sacrificing Pakistani lives and sovereignty to U.S. strategic interests,” according to the Post.

The Awami National Party, which governs the North-West Frontier Province, has expressed its support for the deal even though the militants have targeted them in attacks for their secular views. “They said the government does not have sufficient force to defeat the Taliban and foreign fighters based in the autonomous tribal areas along the Afghan border,” The Washington Post writes. “So, they said, it needs to negotiate with local militant groups in nearby areas such as Swat to isolate the renegade hard-liners in the tribal sanctuaries.”

Related Topic: Dangerous northwest region of Pakistan

The Taliban had been attacking “symbols of authority” in the turbulent northwest region of Pakistan, including girls’ schools and police stations. Threats to schools in Pakistan are somewhat new, and represent “a dark echo of Taliban rule in Afghanistan,” reported the AP in late January. Nearly 170 schools, mostly for girls, have been either bombed or burned over the past year or so, and in December 2008, Islamic militants issued a warning that all girls’ schools would have to be closed by Jan. 15. Ziauddin Yousufzai, who leads an association for private schools in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, told the AP that school attendance had been halved since the warning.

On Friday, Feb. 13, kidnappers claiming to be part of the Baluchistan Liberation United Front (BLUF) threatened to kill an American UN worker “within 72 hours unless authorities release 141 women allegedly held in Pakistan,” according to AP. The kidnappers revealed their message in a letter and an apparent video of the captured American, John Solecki, who was kidnapped on Feb. 2. But on Monday, a spokesman for the kidnappers said the deadline was extended for a “few days,” according to the MSNBC article.

The abduction represents the “most high-profile abduction of a Westerner in several years, and the third attack in five months on Americans working in Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun zone bordering Afghanistan in the country’s west,” Bloomberg reported.

The threat also came “a week after Taliban militants apparently beheaded a Polish geologist abducted in another border area of Pakistan after failing to agree to a prisoner swap,” according to AP.

Members of the Afghan Taliban have sought refuge in northwest Pakistan since 2002, and the United States has attempted to reduce the popularity of Islamic militants in the Pashtun areas by promising $750 million over five years for development of the area, according to Bloomberg.

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