Swat Truce Reflects State Weakness, Not Popular Will
On Feb. 16, the Pakistani government announced a truce with insurgents in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). In the agreement, the government agreed to promulgate Islamic law in one-third of NWFP. Pakistani officials are arguing that Islamic law is a popular demand, and that the creation of state-led Islamic courts will reduce support for extremism. However, rather than vitiating jihadism, the accord will legitimize radical ideology and demonstrate the efficacy of violence in its realization.
NWFP’s citizens have not been agitating for the establishment of Islamic law. True, the province was governed from 2002 to February 2008, by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of hard-line Islamist parties. In its signature legislative effort, the Hisba Act, the MMA envisioned the creation of a vast bureaucracy responsible for implementing Islamist ideology. But when Pakistan’s Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional and the Islamists tried to gin up street protests in response, their efforts were met with complete apathy on the part of constituents.
The law yielded even less electoral advantage. Campaigning in 2005’s district elections on the pledge to persist in establishing Islamic law, the MMA lost several seats to opposition parties. Then in the 2008 provincial elections, the MMA was routed by the secular, nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), which currently governs NWFP.
None of this is to suggest that the public is averse to Islamic law. Even if Pakistanis rarely concur on what it means in practice, the concept of an Islamic state based on scripture and tradition resonates deeply with many of them. Indeed, the MMA’s adept manipulation of Islamic symbolism is what led it to provincial power in the first place.
But demagoguery was not enough to keep the MMA in power, mainly because the Islamists proved to be exceptionally inept administrators. Under their rule, the quality of government services plummeted, insecurity ratcheted up dramatically, and people’s lives became demonstrably worse.
Last year’s elections, then, created an opening for Pakistan’s secular democrats. In the face of widespread disenchantment with the hollow promises of Islamist ideology, they could have articulated a different model of governance that was rooted in authentic, indigenous culture without being reactionary. But now the opportunity has been squandered. By compromising with unrepentant jihadists, the state has effectively conceded that it has no alternative to Islamism.
What has prompted the government to surrender its electoral mandate? Fear. In recent months, 12,000 Pakistani troops stationed in Swat and its surrounding environs have been unable to dislodge 3,000 determined militants. Extremists have killed tribal elders, law enforcement officers, and elected representatives of the ANP, and then displayed their bodies in public squares. After repeated assassination attempts on his life, even the ANP’s leader was forced to temporarily flee the province three months ago.
The insurgents used their momentum to decisively influence negotiations over the type of Islamic law to be implemented. According to the Pakistani press, Swat’s principal extremist group, the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi (TNSF), actively collaborated in writing the law that would create the courts. When its leader objected to provisions that would have reduced the authority of Shariah-dispensing judges, the government incorporated his changes.
Pakistani officials assert that militant groups will lay down their weapons in exchange for concessions. But growing jihadist confidence makes voluntary disarmament unlikely. While truce discussions were ongoing, Punjab, Pakistan’s most developed province, formally asked for federal aid in combating the Taliban’s infiltration of its northern districts. And after the government declared a truce, Taliban spokesmen warned that while they “welcomed” the promulgation of Shariah, they would “wait” to assess the “sincerity” of the government’s enforcement.
According to the ceasefire’s provisions, though troops will remain deployed in northwest Pakistan, they will only conduct retaliatory strikes. As with past deals, the insurgents will use this time to consolidate their grip over local levers of power. Now that the state has acknowledged that it cannot provide basic security, extremists are likely to gain an even greater hold over the war-weary citizenry.
If Pakistan eventually sets up the courts demanded by the militants, it will have ratified a new political dispensation where non-state actors are free to dictate state policy. Islamists will be convinced that what they cannot achieve electorally, they can win through armed force. As it currently stands, rather than isolating and marginalizing extremists, the compact has conferred legitimacy on radical ideology and vindicated jihadist tactics.
Ahmed Humayun is Senior Analyst at Georgetown University’s Emerging Threats Project and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by World Politics Review on February 23, 2009: