Mar 2, 2009

Sweeping Swat

The media is a fickle thing with a short attention span, and the events in the upper reaches of government in recent days has diverted attention from what is happening in Swat and the other troubled areas that have so preoccupied it in recent weeks. As change swirls through the corridors of power, change is being consolidated in the troubled valley. Power has shifted in Swat, and the deal done with the Taliban is the precursor of retreats yet to come. The way has been cleared for the government to make similar arrangements with other groupings of extremists in other parts of the country and it will be able to say, hand on heart, that these are ‘local solutions to local problems.’ Now that their hold is consolidated – at least for the time being – the Taliban are revealing their hand and it is clear that sweeping change is the order of the day, allowing us to see what is our likely future as the Taliban groups gradually take hold of the country.The Taliban spokesman, Muslim Khan, has said that all non-government organisations working in the valley have to cease operation until the implementation of Sharia law. “All NGOs should leave Swat because they are creating problems for peace,” Fazlullah said in a speech which was for the first time cut short by jamming by government agencies. However, he added before being cut off that emergency medical crews were exempt from the order. Thus far it is not clear how many charities, national or international, operate in the valley. Fazlullah called on soldiers deployed in Swat to remain at their bases, vowing to retaliate against any troop increases. No date has been announced for Sharia law to take effect in the valley. It is not clear, either, how the system, which supporters say will be faster than the penal courts, will be implemented or who will be responsible for justice.The Taliban and the NGOs have never sat easily together, if only because the NGOs represent that which the Taliban most detest – moderation and a degree of modernity. Although they are often reviled by commentators who know little or nothing about the work done by NGOs, the fact is that they are the indigenous backbone of much of our social care system. They fill in the blanks in government services, particularly health and education services, they provide support for poor farmers and artisans, they give vocational training, they work with government on public/private partnerships that are increasingly cost effective and, to the obvious distaste of the Taliban, employ women and promote women’s rights and opportunities. It is this latter aspect which is probably the underlying reason for the Taliban demanding that the NGOs cease their work in Swat. The NGOs are only creating problems for peace because they are doing something that the Taliban do not approve of, not because they are engaging in anything remotely warlike. This is the pattern that will follow agreements such as this wherever they are made, and with one agreement under its belt the government will seek others.

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