(CNSNews.com) – Just days before Pakistan’s government hopes to secure billions of dollars in aid pledges from the U.S. and other countries, President Asif Ali Zardari has signed a law enabling Pakistani Taliban extremists to impose Islamic law in the North-West Frontier Province’s volatile Swat valley.
Zardari’s action followed a unanimous parliamentary vote Monday supporting an agreement made by the NWFP government last February to implement shari’a in return for the militants ending an 18 month-long violent campaign in Swat.
The U.S.-backed Zardari had previously been reluctant to approve the deal. Pakistan’s The News opined that the president had awaited parliamentary approval first, so that if the agreement backfires in the future, he would not be held solely responsible.
Previous “peace accords” negotiated with militants in northwestern Pakistan by federal or provincial authorities have had a negative impact on security across the porous border in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. and NATO forces fighting a Taliban insurgency there.
In the Swat case, the agreement effectively formalizes the ceding of government control – over an area just 100 miles from Islamabad, and home to almost two million people – to Islamists sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Swathes of the tribal belt that abuts the NWFP already are under the control of Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who regrouped there after U.S.-led forces toppled their regime in Kabul in response to 9/11.
The Pakistani militants, who torched, bombed and forced the closure of hundreds of girls’ schools while carrying out violent attacks against civilian opponents and police, said in February they would observe a ceasefire if they could enforce shari’a in the NWFP district that encompasses Swat. Shari’a courts have already started operating.
Although many lawmakers support the shari’a deal in the hope it will restore calm to Swat, intimidation tactics may also have played a role. The unanimous parliamentary vote came after militant leaders warned that any lawmaker who opposed the resolution would be viewed as an “apostate.” Apostasy – abandoning Islam – is a capital offense under Islamic law.
The Swat deal is controversial both because of the security and sovereignty implications but also because of concerns that it will facilitate human rights abuses.
Controversial punishments associated with shari’a can include the amputation of limbs, stoning to death and beheading.
A video clip broadcast on Pakistan television this month showed a burqa-clad woman, said to be a 17 year-old Swat resident, being pinned to the ground by three men while a fourth flogged her repeatedly, supposedly for having an illicit relationship, while a crowd looks on. Amid Taliban protestations that the incident had not taken place in Swat, many Pakistanis voiced outrage, among them the recently-restored chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry.
‘No conditions on aid’
President Obama’s recently-unveiled strategy aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan acknowledges that the country’s future is “inextricably linked” to the future of Pakistan.
He accordingly agreed to back legislation in Congress that seeks to triple non-military aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for five years, but also stressed that “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.”
The Pakistan aid bill requires the government to show measurable progress in fighting terrorism and militancy. But its chief sponsor, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. John Kerry, was told in Islamabad Monday that U.S. aid should be unconditional.
“Aid with strings attached would fail to generate the desired goodwill and results in Pakistan,” Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s office quoted him as telling the visiting Massachusetts Democrat.
The two governments are at odds over a number of issues, including continuing drone-launched U.S. missile strikes targeting militants in the tribal belt, and U.S. accusations about longstanding ties between Pakistan’s military intelligence agency and regional militants, including the Afghan Taliban and groups fighting India in disputed Kashmir.
Washington is also unlikely to welcome Zardari’s endorsement of the Swat agreement. The administration’s envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, said of the unfolding shari’a deal last February that the U.S. was unhappy about Pakistani territory being “ceded to the bad guys.”
On Friday, the U.S. and other aid donors meet in Tokyo to discuss an aid package for Pakistan that could be worth $4 billion. Zardari will lead Pakistan’s delegation to the donor conference.