Saturday, March 6, 2010

Implications of the deal

The passage of the controversial Sharia regulation for Malakand division once again brought global and national attention on how this would impact on Pakistan’s future. Swat has been caught in violence for more than two years. The people were desperate for peace as they were caught between the militants and the military. Rough estimates indicate that more than 1,500 were killed, thousands injured and 250,000 were displaced in the previous two operations that were launched by the military against the Taliban.

The Swat deal was based on political expediency and appeasement but the people wanted to give peace a chance and the secular ANP was fully behind it. Then, as neither the ANP government nor the military was willing to stand up for another round, this was the way out. In any case this is a war involving hearts and minds. People for their own reasons took a sigh of relief that the peace deal may at least provide them security and a modicum of justice even if that is medieval. Clearly, there was a popular demand for the promulgation of Nizam-e-Adl in Swat and this goes back to the 1990s when Mohtarmma Benazir Bhutto had agreed to it.

In these circumstances, on the surface the passage of Nizam-e-Adl bill by the parliament and its assent by the president should be considered a welcome development. The context of the current deal is however more complex and problematic. The government has yielded under compulsion at a time when Talibanisation is sweeping the country and overwhelming the state. Fazlullah and Sufi Mohammad have exploited this genuine grievance and has used it brilliantly to expand their growing power. It is for this reason that it would have grave implications if their ambitions are not contained and a comprehensive policy is not devised and put into operation to reverse the tide.

Seeing an opportunity the extreme fringe led by Baitullah Mehsud, Mullah Fazlullah, and others who are spearheading Talibinasation in Pakistan are likely to press on. And if Muslim Khan, the spokesperson of the TNSM, is to be believed jihad in perpetuity is their motto.

This is so obvious from the way they are going about the question of appointing Qazis and addressing administrative and legal issues. The operational part of the Sharia would be the most difficult part of the agreement. It is amply clear that Sufi Mohammed wants to retain the powers of having the final say in the interpretation of Sharia and appointments of Qazis and the final arbiter on all matters of Swat and perhaps of Malakand.

The spread of Taliban phenomena, albeit yet in pockets, is transforming the politico-social dynamic of Pakistan. Democracy and human rights will be the first casualties of Talibanisation.

If however peace was to prevail in due course as a result of the deal and the government regains control over the situation, then every effort must be made to integrate the militants into the political system so that there is a sense of ownership. In parallel, a major effort should be launched to assimilate the cadres into the economic and social mainstream. All this is only attainable if productive skills are developed and employment opportunities are created in these less developed areas. The key question is, does the government have the vision and the capacity to put this plan into operation?

It would depend on what stakes Fazlullah has in maintaining peace. If his agenda is to harbour the militant force, continue to expand his power base and spread radical Islam then obviously the peace deal is a sham and merely a ruse to consolidate and keep marching ahead. Frankly, this seems the most likely scenario. But if he is half as genuine and loyal a Pakistani that some of his apologists would want us to believe it provides him a unique opportunity to redeem himself and Swat could one day return to its original calm and serene beauty for everyone to enjoy.

There are profound social implications of this deal as well, notwithstanding the claims being made by the provincial government. With cinema, TV, art, music all banned the place is already becoming a cultural wasteland. If sports activity is all banned and even cricket considered taboo, the youth would channel their energies into destructive and militant activities. For women even visiting bazaars and going out unaccompanied is considered a sin. The most damaging aspect of Taliban ethos is the opposition to education, and especially of girls. If allowed to continue this would compromise the future of the younger generation and cannot be accepted under any circumstances. Bowing to such retrogressive forces would be an invitation to the dark ages.

A major contributor to Swat’s economy has been tourism that has virtually come to a standstill. No tourist would enter Swat if such stringent interpretation of Sharia bordering on draconian laws prevails.

How will Washington and New Delhi perceive our approach of pacifying the Taliban? Already the US has expressed its reservations and they are closely monitoring the situation. US view has always been that peace deals are counter-productive and end up strengthening the militants by allowing them to consolidate and expand their influence. They could be talked into it that unless there is massive military intervention with huge adverse consequences it was not possible to have handled the situation in any other way. Nonetheless, economic assistance, foreign investment and political support will only keep coming if the international community is convinced that Pakistan is committed in turning the corner and not willing to hand over the country to the Taliban.

Let us also keep reminding ourselves that nuclear power and Talibanisation are a dangerous mix that not even the best of our friends will tolerate.

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