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The Pakistani Taliban announced an indefinite extension of its controversial 10-day cease-fire in the Swat Valley on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after it agreed to lay down its arms in a second battle-scarred region of Pakistan.
The cease-fire accompanied a peace deal reached last week, in which the government of Pakistan agreed to implement Islamic law in Swat in exchange for an end to violence.
The Taliban cease-fire was due to expire on Wednesday, but spokesman Muslim Khan said insurgent leaders decided to extend it "for an indefinite period."
"From our side, there will be no hostility against the government and the army, and we expect the same from them," Khan told The Associated Press.
Pakistani officials say the offer to introduce Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas addresses long-standing demands for speedy justice that have been exploited by the Taliban, which residents say now control much of the region.
But NATO and the United States have voiced concern that any peace accord could effectively cede the valley to militants who have defied a yearlong military operation, beheaded opponents and bombed girls' schools.
The Press Trust of India reports that the truce deal was decided by a council of Pakistani militants chaired by Maulana Fazlullah, who leads the Pakistani Taliban and is seen as one of the more extreme figures in the movement.
Mr. Khan told Agence France-Presse that in addition to an indefinite cease-fire the movement was also releasing prisoners "unconditionally," as a "goodwill gesture." The move began with the release of four paramilitary soldiers.
On Monday, the Taliban also announced a unilateral cease-fire in Pakistan's Bajur region, close to the Swat Valley. The local Taliban commander declared the cease-fire on the group's pirated FM radio station, reports Pakistan's Daily Times:
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Monday announced a unilateral ceasefire and an end to resistance against security forces in Bajaur Agency. Speaking on their illegal FM radio, Bajaur TTP chief Faqir Muhammad said Pakistan was their country and its defence was their obligation.
He said the Taliban did not want war against the government and the army, but some elements were fuelling differences between them, adding that the Taliban did not attack government installations and schools.
The Associated Press reports that while the Taliban in Swat are widely seen to have the upper hand over the central government, in Bajur they have narrowly escaped defeat several times.
The military says it has killed many Taliban fighters there in the past several months and feels no pressure to cede to the militants' demands, says the report.
A government administrator in tribally ruled Bajur said authorities were aware of [Taliban commander Faqir] Mohammad's announcement.
"We do welcome it. If they will not fire bullets, we will also consider taking a lenient view toward them," Faramosh Khan told The Associated Press.
The military began its offensive against militants in Bajur in September last year and claims to have killed around 1,500 Taliban fighters. The United States has praised the offensive and said it has stemmed the flow of fighters in Afghanistan….
In an interview over the weekend, military spokesman ... Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said there were no plans to replicate the Swat approach in Bajur or a neighboring region where the military is also undertaking an offensive. He claimed both operations were succeeding in rooting out al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Pakistani political analyst Tayyab Siddiqui says the extended cease-fire deal has been met with "optimism and hope" in Pakistan.
But not everyone shares that view. The Christian Science Monitor reports that many in Pakistan were wary of the original cease-fire deal, with some seeing it as too fragile to last and others fearing the Taliban would use it as a cover to rearm their forces.
Some analysts, however, remain skeptical of a lasting peace. "This is a deal that both sides have negotiated in bad faith," says Riffat Hussain, a military analyst at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, predicting that the government and Taliban will simply use the cease-fire to entrench their positions.
The Taliban's long-term aims, he says, may be to "carve out Swat as a political enclave for their influence and rule. They will then have a sanctuary for the more extreme forces of Baitullah Mehsud to further destabilize both FATA [Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and Afghanistan," he says, referring to the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan.
In an opinion article in the Los Angeles Times, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the books "Taliban" and "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia," decried the Taliban's expanding role in Pakistan as an "extremist triumph."
He says the Swat peace deal is the largest capitulation to Taliban-style religious extremism yet seen in South Asia, and is a far larger concession to the militants than any deal ever made by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf or current Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
However the deal may be interpreted, it is an unmistakable defeat in the country's losing battle against Islamic extremism. Even though the military regime of former President Pervez Musharraf entered into several controversial, short-lived cease-fires with the Pakistani Taliban in the Pashtun tribal belt, Musharraf's army never conceded major changes in the legal or political system. Even in Afghanistan, where the Afghan Taliban controls several provinces, the Kabul government has never conceded the writ of the state, insisting that such provinces remain contested.
Speaking to the Press Trust of India, Michael Kugelman, an expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center South Asia, agreed, calling the deal "a dramatic setback" in the American and Pakistani battle against radical Islam in South Asia.
He fears that the cease-fire will legitimize the implementation of Islamic law by the Taliban, who have been de facto imposing their interpretation of sharia in the region for over a year.
"Pakistan's military has been unable or unwilling to dislodge this presence," he said. "And this presence has led to dozens of police officers killed; dozens of destroyed girls' schools; and several hundred thousand Swat residents displaced from their homes." He said Pakistan probably reasons that the peace deal will legitimize something Islamabad has no ability to stop and that the ceasefire will bring "much-needed" breathing room and reduction in violence.
"One thing is clear, though: the deal is a powerful reminder of how Pakistan has changed. Swat Valley, long a honeymooner's paradise of lush greenery and spectacular mountain views with a secular outlook, has now officially become a Taliban stronghold," he added.