Months of fighting in Pakistan's Swat Valley region appear to be near an end as the Pakistani government agreed Monday to accept Islamic law and suspend its military campaign against Taliban-linked militants in the region.
The move came after the militants announced a 10-day cease-fire Sunday in anticipation of a peace deal. The Associated Press reports that it includes the enforcement of sharia, or Islamic law, in the region, which was once a tourist haven and home to Pakistan's only ski resort. Critics say the deal is a concession to the militants and a dangerous precedent for Pakistan's civilian government to set. Others call it a fait accompli in a region already controlled by the Taliban and long weighed down by an inefficient colonial-era court system.
Pakistan's daily newspaper Dawn reports that in addition to the cease-fire, militants released Long Xiaowe, a Chinese engineer held for nearly six months, as a "goodwill gesture." Other sources told the paper he was released after "payment of a huge amount of money as ransom," which was denied by the Taliban.
One, the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, known by its Urdu initials TSNM, is led by Sufi Mohamed, and the other is the Taliban Movement of Swat, led by his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah. Mr. Mohamed was imprisoned for eight years after organizing Pakistani men to travel to Afghanistan to fight American forces, but was released last year.
Although the two groups are considered separate, Mr. Fazlullah says his group will abide by any deal agreed to by his father-in-law, reports the Associated Press. Both share a commitment to Islamic law in Swat and have campaigned for it violently since 2007.
"That was our only demand," [Fazlullah's spokesman] told the Associated Press via telephone. "Once Islamic law is imposed there will be no problems in Swat. The Taliban will lay down their arms."...
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, information minister for the North West Frontier Province, confirmed that authorities were talking to members of the Tehrik Nifaz-e-Sharia Mohammed, or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, on ways to implement on-the-books regulations allowing Islamic judicial practices.
Any formal truce would be a major concession by the government, which, despite a military operation in Swat involving 12,000 Pakistani Army troops, has been losing ground to a Taliban force of about 3,000 fighters. The militants have kept a stranglehold on the area for months, killing local police officers and officials and punishing residents who do not adhere to strict Islamic tenets.
US officials have yet to comment on the pending deal but are likely to oppose it, reports Qatar-based news service Al Jazeera, noting the ongoing American war against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been engaged in an effort to negotiate with militants in the country's tribal areas and Northwest Frontier Province since 2008, but has so far been unsuccessful.
Regaining control of the Swat Valley ... is a significant test for Pakistan's civilian leadership....
But Pakistan says that force alone cannot defeat all opposition groups and that talks must take place, although several past deals have failed.
Unlike regions under tribal rule in the northwest, where al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters have found safe havens to launch attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pakistani government has typically controlled the Swat Valley.
Conservative groups aiming to introduce sharia have been fighting government troops in the region since 2007.
The groups took control there after a 2008 peace deal collapsed, within months of being signed.
Speaking to the Guardian, critics say that agreeing to Taliban demands for Islamic law in one part of the country will open the door for the movement and its allies to demand and win similar changes in other provinces.
Critics warned that the new sharia regulations represented a capitulation to the extremists' demands, and that it would be difficult to stop hardliners elsewhere in the country from demanding that their areas also come under Islamic law.
"This is definitely a surrender," said Khadim Hussain of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a thinktank in Islamabad. "If you keep treating a community as something different from the rest of the country, it will isolate them."
Javed Iqbal, a retired judge, speaking on Pakistani television, said: "It means that there is not one law in the country. It will disintegrate this way. If you concede to this, you will go on conceding."
But Outlook India reports that, with most of the region already under its control, the Taliban has effectively been enforcing its interpretation of Islamic law for some time.
The Taliban in Swat have executed dozens of government employees, including policemen, and people they accused of indulging in "un-Islamic" activities. They have banned the education of girls and bombed or torched nearly 200 schools in the valley.
The militants, who control most parts of Swat, have also banned the playing of music in public transport and barred barbers from shaving beards.
Hajji Adeel, a high-level secular politician in the Northwest Frontier Province who participated in negotiations with Sufi Mohamed, the TSNM leader, says the deal is more about speeding up a corrupt and inefficient court system than writing Islamic extremism into law, reports the Guardian.
The creaky colonial-era legal system in Pakistan means that cases drag on for years, sometimes decades, a major source of anger for ordinary people. "If six months ago, this [sharia] had started working in Swat, the intensity of the terror there would have been much less," said Adeel....
The new law is a relatively mild form of sharia, with the aim of undermining support for the extremists and their populist demand for speedy Islamic justice. Religious experts, known as ... qazi, will sit in the court, alongside a regular judge, to ensure that the rulings are in compliance with Islam.