The Obama administration said Pakistan's imposition of Islamic law in a northwest valley to quell a Taliban insurgency undermines human rights, while a visiting U.S. senator urged the country to "ratchet up" its urgency in the terror fight.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs' comments on Tuesday were the United States' most pointed criticisms of Pakistan's peace efforts in the Swat Valley to date. They came hours after a hard-line cleric who mediated the deal indicated it will protect militants accused of brutal killings in the one-time tourist haven from prosecution. "The administration believes solutions involving security in Pakistan don't include less democracy and less human rights," Gibbs said. "The signing of that denoting strict Islamic law in the Swat Valley ... goes against both of those principles." Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was visiting Pakistan this week ahead of a donors conference for the country in Tokyo.
Kerry is spearheading a bill to increase U.S. nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, a multibillion dollar effort to strengthen sectors such as education to help lessen the allure of extremism in the Muslim-majority nation of 170 million. The senator said the Pakistani government must make some "basic decisions," including where and how much of its army it will deploy against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, who are primarily based along its northwest border with Afghanistan.
The army has tens of thousands of troops in the northwest, but has long devoted far more resources to its eastern border with longtime rival India. "I don't think that the effort has been resourced the way that it needs to be either in the personnel or the strategy," Kerry said, adding later, "The government has to ratchet up the urgency."
Pakistan's beleaguered, U.S.-allied government has tried both carrots and sticks in dealing with the insurgency, even as it has been distracted by a host of issues, including a faltering economy and political feuds.
In the scenic Swat Valley, 18 months of bloodshed prompted the provincial government in February to agree to impose Islamic law there and in surrounding areas to achieve peace. The Taliban agreed to a cease-fire. After weeks of foot-dragging, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari approved the regulation late Monday only after Parliament voted unanimously to adopt a resolution urging him to sign it. The deal covers the Malakand division of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, a largely conservative region which stretches north along the Afghan border for hundreds of miles.
The Swat Valley section lies less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad, and is believed to be largely under Taliban control. Defenders say the deal will drain public support for extremists who have hijacked long-standing calls in Swat for reform of Pakistan's snail-paced justice system.
But critics worry it rewards hard-liners who have beheaded political opponents and burned scores of schools for girls in the name of Islam _ and that it will encourage similar demands in other parts of the nuclear-armed country.
Hard-line cleric Sufi Muhammad brokered the deal, whose terms remain murky. Asked Tuesday in a television interview if the new courts would hear complaints from Swat residents about the militants, Muhammad strongly suggested they could not. "Past things will be left behind and we will go for a new life in peace," Muhammad told the ARY channel, sitting off-screen because he considers photographic or TV images to be against Islam.
Asked if the Taliban would enjoy such immunity, a provincial government minister only pleaded for calm so that peace could take hold. "Everyone should understand what we have gone through and what kind of hardship people in Swat have suffered," Wajid Ali Khan said. "We can look into any disputes and controversy at some later stage."
Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said Tuesday that the pact was little more than a tactical maneuver in the country's "long war" with extremists. "Those people who want to hijack Pakistan and destabilize Pakistan, they used (the demand for speedy justice) as a propaganda tool," Kaira said. "We have taken that idea out of the hand of the exploiters." He insisted the deal would not lead to a version of Islamic law like that upheld by the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
A spokesman for the Taliban said the militants would cooperate. If the law is quickly implemented, "the world will see how much peace and prosperity comes to this region," said Muslim Khan. He announced on Tuesday that the militants would observe a ban on the "unnecessary" display of arms in Swat. Many observers, however, doubt the Swat Taliban's ambitions end at the valley's borders.
The militants recently made a violent push into the neighboring Buner region, and Muhammad has repeatedly denounced Pakistan's democratic system as being against Islam , a view shared by the extremist groups blamed for the country's rising violence.