In a deal announced Monday, the government agreed to a suite of legal reforms, including the establishment of a religious court of appeals serving only the tribal region of Malakand. The area includes the Swat Valley, a strategic corridor first infiltrated in 2007 by Taliban militants and the scene of an Army counteroffensive. On the eve of the agreement, the Taliban operating in Swat announced a cease-fire with government troops.
Previous Pakistani truces have faced US criticism for merely giving militants space and time to rearm. This latest deal raises the added concern that the government is trading away secular traditions and taking a step toward Islamic law, or sharia.
However, political leaders and analysts here agree that this religious court system would not invoke some of the most draconian punishments often associated with sharia. And it is widely seen as a popular move to restore the efficient rule of law in a country where the secular court system often takes years to resolve cases.
"We are optimistic that this situation imposed on Malakand region will bring peace," says Wajid Ali Khan, a provincial assembly member for Swat. "It's not the demand of the Taliban, it's the demand of the people of the Malakand region."
Easing a bottleneck in the courts
Elements of the religious judicial system, called nizam-e-adl, have been in place in the region since 1994. While cases could be decided more quickly in these religious courts, they often could be bogged down by appeals to the secular court system.
Such an appeal could take more than a decade, driving legal fees beyond the means of many Pakistanis, meaning that justice delayed would often mean justice denied.
"If you see such economic and social injustice, then naturally your mind goes to Islamic justice," says Shah Farman, the provincial general secretary of the Tehreek e-Insaf, or party of justice. "People are looking for speedy and cheap justice."
The lack of an efficient justice system sparked political protests starting in the 1990s by Sufi Muhammad, the father-in-law of the current Taliban leader in Swat Valley, Maulana Fazlullah. Monday's deal was struck between the provincial government and Mr. Muhammad, with the blessing of Pakistan's federal government and military.
The deal sets time limits for trials: six months for civil cases, four months for criminal cases. And the new religious appellate court would remove the need for local cases to be appealed into the secular court system.
Deal meant to undercut militants
In exchange, Muhammad agreed to call off his protests. The hope is that Muhammad will be able to "nibble away gradually" local support for his militant son-in-law, Fazlullah, says Ismail Khan, Peshawar bureau chief for the English-language newspaper Dawn. "This will deny Fazlullah the slogan that he's fighting for sharia," he says.
However, it's unclear what ability Muhammad has to peel away fighters from Fazlullah, notes Mr. Khan, who doubts the move will result in significant disarmament.
That skepticism is shared by those who see the Taliban's end goal in Swat not to be the rule of Islamic law, but rule by their guns.
"This is not a solution to the problem, nor is this a demand from the militants, because their goal is to control the area," says Mahmood Shah, the former secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
The overrunning of Swat by the Taliban represented a major blow to the civilian government of President Asif Zardari. Previously the insurgents had been contained to FATA, a historically lawless region where Islamabad exercised little to no authority. In an interview this weekend, Mr. Zardari warned that the Taliban had established a presence in "huge parts" of Pakistan.
Swat lies outside FATA and had been a thriving tourist destination within the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) not far from the national capital. The Taliban have struck fear in the mountain region, burning girls' schools, and intimidating hundreds of police to quit.
Military efforts to oust the Taliban from Swat have bogged down in recent days. The government has relied heavily on paramilitary frontier forces that are poorly equipped and not trained in counterinsurgency. As a result, observers say the crude counteroffensive wound up killing civilians and dealing little damage to the Taliban.
Fears of a slippery slope
While the deal may give the Army a face-saving way out of a stalemate, some observers also see the decision as a slippery slope. The fear is that once the government allows a parallel system of justice, the Taliban will ratchet up demands for the harshest forms of sharia to be instituted.
"The government is setting a very bad precedent," says Ghulam Dastageer, court reporter for English-language newspaper The News. "The government will not go for public whipping, cutting off heads and hands. But the Taliban will [eventually] demand we need this type of sharia."