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Published: Wednesday, 2/25/2009

Pakistan's Swat mistake

IT IS well nigh indisputable that a moderate and secure Pakistan is of critical importance not only to the success of the United States' war on terrorism but also to the peace and stability of the entire south Asian subcontinent.

Pakistan's decision to, in effect, cede control of the Swat Valley to the Taliban, allowing imposition of Islamic law there, seriously compromises both regional stability and U.S. efforts to root out terrorists both in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

For months, Taliban militants have been battling the Pakistan military for control of the valley, a once-popular tourist spot just two hours from the capital of Islamabad and, unlike the unruly tribal area along the border with Afghanistan, considered until 2007 to be firmly under government control.

They also have terrorized the local population through assassinations and sometimes beheadings of local officials and journalists and the destruction of some 200 (mostly girls') schools as well as banning DVDs, singing, dancing, and cable TV.

Earlier this week, the Pakistan government agreed to a truce that would legitimize Taliban control of Swat and establish Shariah courts alongside the secular courts. Sherry Rehman, the government's information minister, insisted that the deal was not a "concession." Rather, she said, "the public will of the population of the Swat region" was at the core of the agreement.

Would that be the "public will" of the 500,000 or so people who have fled the valley in the face of Taliban intimidation? Or would it be the will of the tens of thousands of women who, instead of going to school, will be secluded in their homes? Will Ms. Rehman be comfortable traveling in Swat under Taliban rule?

Before the arrival of the Taliban, the Swat Valley was one of the most progressive and advanced parts of Pakistan. The economy was well developed, the roads were good, and adult education - including women - was compulsory. Now, all that will change. One has only to look at Taliban rule in Afghanistan for a model of what the future will look like in this picturesque region, once known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan."

Government officials from Islamabad will still be in evidence in Swat but the Taliban, not they, will be in charge. And no matter how benign the Shariah courts may be at first, Taliban leaders, for whom a strict interpretation of Islamic law is fundamental, will not allow the courts to remain so moderate.

This expansion of Taliban influence increases the danger to secular government in the rest of the North-West Frontier Province, is a challenge to the government of President Asif Zardari, and changes the political equation from Iran to India.

In addition, a Taliban-controlled Swat will be anything but neutral in America's war on terror. Maulana Sufi Muhammad, leader of the movement to impose Islamic law on Swat and father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of Taliban in Swat, has promised that the militants will lay down their arms but that hardly seems likely. More likely is that Swat will become a training ground and safe haven deep inside Pakistan for Taliban militants who continue to wage war on NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as another potential refuge for al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

If the Pakistan officials believe striking a deal with the Taliban will bring peace and security to Swat, they are sadly mistaken, and the price for that mistake will be paid by the people of Swat, increased terrorism, and greater instability in the region.

That is the message the Obama Administration should deliver to Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of Pakistan's army, when he meets this week with U.S. officials.



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