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Supping with the Taliban

india Updated: Feb 19, 2009 22:22 IST
Hindustan Times
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The recent Swat Valley ceasefire signed between Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province government and the founder of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM), one of the so-called ‘Pakistani Taliban’ groups, represents the latest and most dramatic evidence that the Pakistani leadership has no real answer to the growing Islamicist influence in their country. The ceasefire is more than a mere silencing of guns. The provincial government, headed by the Awami National Party, has also offered to let the valley and its environs have a shariah court system independent of Islamabad. This would mean surrendering the last vestige of civil administration that is outside local Islamicist control in that area.

The TNSM has sought to take over civil administration in the Swat area since 1992. Despite the odd bursts of resistance, over the years Islamabad’s overall response — from Benazir Bhutto to Pervez Musharraf — has been to make piecemeal concessions in return for peace on the ground. The present agreement is the latest step in what amounts to a decade of appeasement. The ceasefire may yet be still-born the active head of the TNSM has yet to sign on. It will certainly be short-lived: previous agreements with Taliban groups have only increased their political appetite. The TNSM’s publicly stated goal is the imposition of Islamicist rule across Pakistan. Eyebrows have been raised by the Awami role in the agreement. But this reflects a division within the Pakistani system on how to handle the Taliban problem. The secular Awamis are among those who feel Islamicist parties need to be accommodated within the political system, that the United States’ war in Afghanistan is largely to blame for the turmoil along the northwest frontier. Nawaz Sharif and many elements in the military also hew to this line. President Asif Zardari reportedly does not, but it is believed he winked at the TNSM agreement.

In other words, Pakistan’s fractious leadership is inclined to offer even more concessions to the Islamicists, with only Washington serving as a countervailing force. New Delhi can cluck with concern. The only real bulwark, however, against the spread of the Taliban and its offshoots is the realisation among Pakistan’s own elite that accommodation, let alone support, of Islamicists poses a great threat to their aspirations for national greatness.