Feb 20, 2009

Peace deals, Mumbai moves and politics

by Shafqat Mahmood
A number of things are coming to a head at the same time. A deal has been signed to enforce a judicial system based on Sharia in Swat. Pakistan has admitted that at least a part of the planning for the terror act in Mumbai was done in Pakistan. The lawyers' movement is gathering momentum with Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry holding preparatory meetings in different cities. On the political front too, some developments are significant. The PML-N, without quite saying so, is distancing itself from the more radical steps contemplated by the lawyers. Does this mean a behind-the-scene rapprochement with the PPP? Even more interesting is the first high-level contact between the PML-N and the MQM, with the Punjab chief minister calling on the Sindh governor. Considering the abusive volleys issuing forth between them not long ago, this indeed is a major shift.Is there any connection between these apparently disparate developments? It is difficult to connect all the dots but some imperatives are obvious. Clearly, the PPP government was feeling stressed on many fronts and needed to relieve pressure. Continuing bloodshed in Swat projected an image of incompetence; India had turned on the heat after Mumbai and the international community seemed to be buying its line; and confrontation with the PML-N was brewing over Punjab and the lawyers' march. If this was not enough, the new administration in Washington was focusing harder on Pakistan, considering it a greater source of potential trouble than Afghanistan. Although, US support for President Zardari is strong, thanks in no small part to the effort put in by Ambassador Haqqani in Washington, time to deliver was rapidly approaching. The coming together of these issues dictated some of the steps taken. There was no great enthusiasm within the PPP for enforcement of Sharia in Swat. But, it was felt that if this was all it took to bring about peace there, then it should be done. The ANP government in the Frontier was already under extreme pressure of the militants with some of its leaders killed and others hiding in safe places. It too needed some relief. Thus, the decision to go ahead and cut a deal with Sufi Mohammad.This may have bought some breathing space for the federal and provincial governments, but the problem is that such deals in the past have only strengthened the militants. The people of Swat are fed up with bloodshed and the disruption of their normal life. It is natural for them to welcome anything that could lead to peace but there hopes may be misplaced. Just a day after the ceasefire a correspondent for Geo TV and The News, Musa Khankhel, was killed in cold blood. By the time this goes into print other violations may also have occurred. With such early signs, it is difficult to be optimistic. The reason for this is simple. The militants in Swat may claim to be fighting for the enforcement of Sharia – and a small minority may be motivated by this – but not all. The likes of Fazlullah are fighting to claim territory and create a state within a state. In this, they are backed by a fair number of foreign militants who have penetrated into Swat. A peace deal for them only means no military interdiction and greater freedom of action. A day after the accord, TV channels were reporting that check posts on approaches to Swat were being manned by the militants. Does the deal then only mean an abdication of responsibility by the state and a virtual takeover by the Taliban? It may have given some political relief to the PPP and the ANP but this clearly is not peace. It is surrender. Real change would be if the militants melted away and the state was able to establish control. Is that likely to happen?I am not even going into the codification issues of Sharia acceptable to all but there are other issues not strictly judicial. Where do men's beards, girls' schools, women's right to work, choice of curriculums and other such things fall? Will these too be determined by the militants? There is a bizarre story doing the rounds that Sufi Mohammad ordered driving on the right side of the road during an earlier episode of Sharia enforcement. It resulted in many accidents but his self-righteous zeal was not deterred. Will such things too be part of the deal?It is going to be rough going. The external situation may also be not conducive. The NATO allies in Afghanistan are already expressing scepticism and this is likely to grow, although there are some reports that the US is okay with it. The government, though, may have won some international credit by conducting a thorough inquiry into the Mumbai tragedy. It was also courageous to accept publicly that some local elements might be involved in it. This has established Pakistan's sincerity and the credibility of its investigative process. India has also been put on the defensive by this move and its accusatory rhetoric is sounding increasingly hollow. And with thirty questions put to it, the ball has been squarely lobbed into India's court. Now the offer of joint investigation made earlier by Pakistan after the Mumbai tragedy is far more credible. Also, with an able officer like Tariq Khosa heading the FIA, there are unlikely to be any lose ends and this will further enhance the credibility of the government's investigative effort. An important test however will be the trial of the Mumbai accused. If it is an eyewash, the international kudos earned by Pakistan will also be washed away. If it is real and the culprits are given severe punishment, it could lead to a reaction in the country. Punjab may well become the real battleground as the Lashkar-e-Taiba has most of its support in this province. It is in this context that the apparent cease fire between the PPP and the PML N becomes relevant. If there is a militancy challenge in Punjab, it is the Shahbaz Sharif led government that will have to face it. At a minimum, this will entail a working relationship between the federal and the provincial government. It is possible that these national considerations may have played a part in bringing the two parties together.A more important consideration may also have been the realisation in the political class that a confrontation could see the end of them all. This was like a gun pointing at their heart and made them concentrate their minds on peace, live and let live etc etc. It could also be the reason for the seismic shift of Shahbaz Sharif sitting down with the MQM's Ishrat-ul-Ibad.While all is not well on the political front, the basis for a policy of mutual tolerance has been created. This leaves the likes of Salmaan Taseer and his gang of Punjab wannabes all dressed up, having nowhere to go. Their passion for power in Punjab is not likely to be requited very soon. Most of the dots connected folks - or not?

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