Pakistan has agreed to limited Sharia law in its Malakand region as part of a wider truce with the Taliban.
The government agreed to implement Islamic law and suspend a military offensive across a large swath of northwest Pakistan on Monday in concessions aimed at pacifying a spreading Taliban insurgency there.
The announcement came after talks with Islamist groups, including one closely linked to the Taliban.
The move will likely concern the United States, which has warned Pakistan that such peace agreements allow al-Qaida and Taliban militants operating near the Afghan border time to rearm and regroup.
Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister for the North West Frontier Province, said authorities would impose Islamic law in Malakand region, which includes the Swat Valley. Swat is a one-time tourist haven in the northwest where extremists have gained sway through brutal tactics including beheading residents, burning girls schools and attacking security forces. He said the laws would only be implemented when the valley was peaceful.
The Swat Taliban said Sunday they would observe a 10-day cease-fire in support of the peace process. They welcomed Monday’s announcement, which did not mention any need for the militants to give up arms. “Our whole struggle is for the enforcement of Shariah (Islamic) law,” Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said. “If this really brings us the implementation of Shariah, we will fully cooperate with it.”
Hoti gave few details, but said the main changes were included in existing laws stipulating Islamic justice that have never been enforced. They allow for Muslim clerics to advise judges when hearing cases, but do not ban female education or mention other strict interpretations of Shariah espoused by the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “This was the people’s demand … for speedy justice.” he said. “There was a (legal) vacuum and we will be filling that vacuum in the near future,” he told a news conference. Hoti also said that troops in Swat, which had been conducting an offensive there against the militants, would now go on “reactive mode” and retaliate only if attacked.
While this is shocking on a headline level, it strikes me as a concession to reality. Pakistan’s government doesn’t control most of the territory labeled “Pakistan” on the map. This may just amount to picking their fights carefully as they try to extend control to regions most crucial to its security and relations with India and the United States.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.