U.S. Concerned About Pakistan's Swat Valley Deal

Pakistan's government says it is implementing Islamic law in the Swat Valley in exchange for a truce with Taliban militants. The deal has raised concern in the West. The cease-fire has been criticized as giving in to militants, and it's feared the deal could embolden other militant groups in Pakistan.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

More now on a story we've been following in Pakistan. Earlier this week, Pakistani authorities agreed to the introduction of Islamic judicial practices in the country's Swat Valley. In exchange, the Taliban there would agree to a ceasefire with the Pakistani army. The ceasefire deal has raised concern here in the West. President Obama's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, addressed the issue last night on the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

(Soundbite of TV show, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer")

Mr. RICHARD HOLBROOKE (United States Envoy): We're troubled and confused in a sense about what happened in Swat, because it is not an encouraging trend. Previous ceasefires have broken down. And we do not want to see territory ceded to the bad guys. And the people who took over Swat are very bad people.

SHAPIRO: NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves has been following the story and he joins us. Good morning.

PHILIP REEVES: Good morning.

SHAPIRO: How accurate is it for Richard Holbrooke to describe this as ceding territory to bad guys?

REEVES: Well, that's certainly what some Pakistanis think. And it's clearly what NATO, next door in Afghanistan, thinks. But you know, we'll have to see whether this deal actually goes through. Remember, this is an agreement between the provincial authorities in Northwest Pakistan and a radical cleric called Maulana Sufi Mohammad.

Sufi Mohammad is head of a movement that's campaigning for Islamic law. He once led thousands of Pakistanis on a disastrous mission to attack American forces in Afghanistan. But now he's renounced violence and is acting as a mediator in this peace-making effort.

It so happens that the head of the Taliban in Swat is his son-in-law, a guy called Maulana Fazlullah. Today, those two men have been talking about the deal and the Taliban have not yet signed off on it. There's a lot to talk about. For example, Sufi Mohammad and of course the Pakistani government wants the Taliban to disarm. But it's not clear at all whether the deal actually hinges on this. It doesn't look like the Taliban are categorically being asked to hand in their arms.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari's position is characteristically vague. According to his information minister, Zardari's going to sign off on the accord if there is peace in Swat. At the same time, I'm hearing that the Taliban's got some demands of its own about compensation, about introducing some hard-line social laws and so on.

SHAPIRO: And are the Taliban in Swat that they're talking about striking this deal with effectively the same Taliban that American forces are fighting in Afghanistan?

REEVES: No. Though they share the same ideology and they have ties. This is a well organized network of militants based in the northwest of Pakistan. They look to a militant leader in Waziristan called Baitullah Mehsud. You may well have heard of him, because he was the man who was accused by Pakistani officials of being behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

SHAPIRO: And when we say that they're discussing the introduction of Islamic law, what exactly are they talking about? Is this public stonings? Girls can't go to school? Thieves having their hands cut off? Things like that?

REEVES: Well, if you talk to people in Swat, they say they're not worried about this being a very draconian system. They say that actually it's legislation that dates back to the mid-'90s when it was introduced by the government of Benazir Bhutto, which was of course a secular government. They also point out that what it does is that it speeds up the system. It can take decades to get a verdict out of the courts. This sets up an appellate court, a Shariat appellate court, in the northwest of Pakistan and it must deliver its verdicts within a matter of months. They're happy with that. However, others are not. There are, for example, civil activists who say that this is the step in the direction of a hard-line Islamic system and they're worried that it's part of a larger process of the spread of the Islamists across Pakistan.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Philip Reeves speaking with us from New Delhi.

Thank you very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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Pakistan Deal With Taliban Draws Criticism

Pakistan's government says it is implementing Shariah, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley in return for a truce with Taliban militants in the region. U.S. intelligence officials say similar truces in the past have not only failed, they've allowed the Taliban to grow in strength and numbers.

The natural beauty of Pakistan's Swat Valley, with its mountains, lakes and wide-open fields, was once a major tourist draw for Pakistanis and foreigners alike. But in recent months, visitors have stayed away and hundreds of thousands of local residents have fled amid the Taliban onslaught and a counteroffensive by the Pakistani army.

Taliban Activity

"What you have is a relatively small, unrepresentative group of extreme militants who have essentially terrorized the Swat Valley," says Robert Grenier, the CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1999 to 2002, and now the managing director of Kroll Inc. "They've been in open revolt against the government, they have been killing local police."

Grenier says the Taliban has also been fighting the army and terrorizing local citizens.

"They've been murdering people who disagree with them; they've been burning girls' schools by the dozens," he says.

Analysts say roughly 3,000 Taliban militants have been able to take on a 12,000-strong Pakistani military force in Swat Valley. For that reason, the decision by Pakistan's fragile government to call a truce with the Taliban in the region is widely seen as a capitulation.

"I think it's being read as a demonstration of the relative weakness of the Pakistani army facing Taliban fighters," says Daniel Markey, of the Council on Foreign Relations, who helped coordinate Pakistan policy in the U.S. State Department from 2003 to 2007.

"I think Washington has to see this with some anxiety about what it says about the army's lack of capacity when it comes to counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan," Markey says.

U.S. Opposition

One U.S. Defense official said the news of Pakistan's decision was met with groans through the halls of the Pentagon. The U.S. has been pushing Pakistan to take on Taliban and other Islamist extremists, especially in the tribal regions along the Afghanistan border.

For its part, the U.S. has increased its missile strikes on the border region. Markey says there are indications those strikes have disrupted al-Qaida and other Islamist networks, which means the militants could push farther into Pakistan, into areas like the Swat region.

"So if you're al-Qaida and you're looking to find a new, safer place to operate, you'd probably choose to move east, farther away from the Afghan border where you feel safe, into Swat Valley," Markey says.

None of the analysts thinks the truce in the Swat Valley will hold for long.

Few Incentives For Taliban

Xenia Dormandy, a former director for South Asia on the National Security Council, and now with Harvard University's Belfer Center, says there is no great incentive for the Taliban to stick to the truce.

"They appear to be taking ground and holding ground. The military appears to be losing ground and has no ability to get it back," she says. "There doesn't appear to be any reason at this point for the Taliban to stop."

The options for the U.S. are fairly limited, says Grenier, the former CIA station chief.

"Clearly, we need to represent to them that we are not fooled by this. That we see it for what it is," Grenier says. "That it means that we need to be taking very active steps to strengthen the Pakistani government and to strengthen the Pakistani army."

Strengthening those two entities requires long-term efforts. Yet analysts say the problem with the Taliban in the Swat Valley requires immediate action.

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