Taliban, Pakistan Province Agree To Cease-Fire

In northern Pakistan, a deal is in the works to end the war in the Swat Valley, once a vacation destination now largely in the hands of the Taliban. The Taliban in the area unilaterally declared a ten-day ceasefire in the Swat Valley after the provincial government in northwest Pakistan and Islamist militants reached an agreement in which Islamic judicial practices will be enforced in part of the northwest.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

In Pakistan, a deal is in the works intended to end the war in the Swat Valley. It was once a tourist destination, and now the valley is largely under Taliban control. The agreement would implement Islamic law in a major portion of Pakistan's northwest region. It's a controversial deal. Some believe the government should make no concessions to Islamist militants whose influence is growing in Pakistan.

We're joined now by NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves. Good morning.

PHILIP REEVES: Good morning.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the details of this agreement we're talking about.

REEVES: This is an agreement between the provincial government in northwest Pakistan and the leader of an officially banned movement that's long been pressing for the enforcement of Shariah law. The leader of that movement is a man called Sufi Muhammad. He was released from prison last year after leading hundreds of men to fight American forces in Afghanistan.

The agreement would allow for the introduction, or the enforcement rather, of Islamic judicial practices in a big chunk of the northwest called Malakand. Now, many people in that part of Pakistan have actually been saying they want Islamic law, and they're not talking about the Taliban's very harsh variant of Shariah law - with beheadings and stonings and, you know, ban on female education and so on - they're just fed up with a judiciary that's extremely slow and broken down and they want swift, locally administered justice that conforms to their religious beliefs.

SHAPIRO: And describe the place where this is all playing out. The Swat Valley used to be one of Pakistan's biggest tourist destinations I understand.

REEVES: That's right. This agreement affects an area that includes Swat Valley. Now, this is part of regular Pakistan - it's not in the Tribal Belt. It used to be a place where Pakistanis would go and - it's very beautiful and mountains there - you'd go and fish in the rivers and walk in the hills and so on.

The army has been trying for more than a year, off and on, to drive the Taliban out of that area. They've taken control of it and their foothold there is now very strong indeed. There has been some terrible violence there. And the idea behind this agreement from the provincial government's point of view is to try to establish some peace in the area and to allow the government to reestablish some sort of administrative control there.

SHAPIRO: This is remarkable. I understand that 12,000 Pakistani troops have been unable to overwhelm 3,000 Taliban forces, or thereabouts.

REEVES: Yeah. You have to bear in mind the physical conditions though. It's mountainous, the Taliban use guerilla tactics, it's hit-and-run. And the army has alienated an awful lot of people in Swat Valley by, for example, indiscriminately shelling, according to residents, villages in the area and by introducing all sorts of restrictions, such as curfews, that have bought the economy of the area to its knees.

SHAPIRO: So, do you think this peace deal could work?

REEVES: Well, it's not clear. I mean, the guy who's struck this agreement with a provincial government, Sufi Muhammad, he's now going to go to Swat to talk to the Taliban. The Taliban happens to be led by his son-in-law. And Sufi Muhammad is expected to ask the Taliban in Swat to stop fighting. The Taliban's already responded by a unilateral declaration of a 10-day ceasefire.

But we've been around this block before. Last year, a similar peace agreement was attempted. There was a pause in the fighting and then it fell apart. And the army, the Pakistani Army, says that that episode last year allowed the Taliban to regroup and to rearm and to spread its influence. And that issue is bound to arise again now.

The other important issue I must mention here is that apparently it's the case that they're going to ask the Taliban in Swat to disarm. Now, a lot of people are very skeptical about whether the Taliban will ever do that.

SHAPIRO: Now, as you said, this is a peace deal between the Taliban and the provincial government in this northwest part of Pakistan. How does the federal government of Pakistan feel about this?

REEVES: Well, you know, the president, Asif Ali Zadari's always adopted a public posture, which is extremely anti-Islamist militants. I mean, he blames them for the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto. And we got a reminder of that over the weekend when Zadari went on CBS TV saying that the Taliban are trying to take over Pakistan and that Pakistan's actually fighting for its survival.

But beneath the surface, his government may see this as a way of splitting the Taliban in Swat from the rest of the Taliban in the northwest. So, it's not impossible that they are tacitly allowing this to play out to see what happens.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves. Thanks a lot.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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