TOPICS > Politics

Swat Valley Power Struggle Led to Islamic Law Decision

April 14, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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Analysts discuss the impact of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's move to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley as part of a deal to end two years of fighting with pro-Taliban militants in the region.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the situation in Pakistan, we turn to Robert Grenier, former CIA station chief in Islamabad. He’s now with Kroll Associates, a consulting firm.

And Anita Weiss, she’s professor and head of international studies at the University of Oregon. She has written extensively about Pakistan and was there in November.

Thank you both for being with us.

To you, Robert Grenier, first. Why did the government of Pakistan agree to let the Swat Valley be ruled by Sharia Islamic law?

ROBERT GRENIER, Former CIA Official: This really doesn’t have so much to do with Sharia law, per se. This really has to do with power.

And the government found that it was simply unable, using the army, to subdue the Taliban in Swat Valley. And essentially they’re capitulating right now. They’re hoping that essentially these people can be appeased.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anita Weiss, is that what’s going on, they’re hoping for capitulation?

ANITA WEISS, University of Oregon: Oh, I certainly concur with that, because there have been some very brutal things going on in the Swat Valley for the last two years. A year ago, there was beheading of police officers.

But the problem there is that there’s limited consensus on what Sharia law should actually be, what law would — you know, what parts of Sharia should actually be imposed.

Like, for example, in your lead-in, you were talking about education. Well, Islam certainly very strongly supports not only male education, but female education. There is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that says, “Seek knowledge even if you have to go to China.”

So the idea of closing boys and girls schools is anathema, really, to Islam, but not to their particular interpretation.

Taliban is stronger in Swat

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to get to that definition of what Sharia law means in just a minute, but, Anita Weiss, just to follow up, is there likely to be capitulation, moderation as a result of this?

ANITA WEISS: Well, I mean, it's clearly the government capitulating. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was said to be in the opposition, trying to push President Zardari to signing the legislation. The former information minister, Sherry Rehman, has come out very vociferously, basically saying, "You can't do this. I mean, where is the writ of the state here?"

And I think that this is very important, but I feel that the state felt that they could not control the situation in Swat. The violence, the terrorism was getting so out of hand they had to capitulate on this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Grenier, does this then necessarily mean that the Taliban is stronger?

ROBERT GRENIER: Oh, yes, absolutely. They've demonstrated that they have been able to seize control through force of arms in this area. And this isn't just a general concern; we're already seeing the aftermath in days after the acceptance of this agreement.

The militants have already moved into the next valley over, in Buner, and they are spreading their control to that area, as well.

Extreme vision of Islam

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's get to the question that Anita Weiss raised about, what does Islamic law mean? What is going to change for the lives of the people who live in the Swat Valley as a result of this?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, for the people in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas, this means that their area is essentially becoming indistinguishable from what Afghanistan was under the Taliban before 9/11. It's a very, very extreme vision of conservative Islam.

So there will be no education for girls. There will be medieval punishments meted out. And there will be no recourse. There will be no way of appealing decisions. Essentially, people with guns will be there to carry out justice as they see fit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Anita Weiss, how do you see it? You were saying a minute ago, however, there's not a consensus on this.

ANITA WEISS: Right. And I'm not completely convinced that by passage of the Nizam-i-Adl that it necessarily means that the Taliban are so much stronger, but rather that the state is, indeed, weaker, that the state realized it couldn't do much here.

I am reluctant to agree strongly with the last comment, though, that it will come to resemble what Afghanistan looked like under Mullah Omar and the rule of the Taliban, in part because it is Pakistan. It's the Swat Valley. People have long been very pious, very religious. It's a Pashtun area.

But on the other hand, not everybody firmly supports this. And we're not looking at a space that is war-torn and ravaged like Afghanistan had been prior to the Taliban.

But, rather, I think that there was a great deal of support for the idea of the enforcement of Sharia law, not necessarily the rest of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan's agenda, meaning the agenda of this coalition of Taliban groups that had come together in this area.

And it may well turn out that it will have the inverse effect of getting public support away from the Taliban.

Public reaction is important

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you -- let me interrupt -- are you saying, because what they're proposing is more extreme than what the public's prepared to go along with?

ANITA WEISS: Yes. And I think that it's more than just the enforcement of Sharia law. You know, by saying that Sharia law is penultimate is one thing, but Sharia law is not what closes schools. Sharia law is not what causes a lot of the other things that have been mentioned already.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Grenier, could that happen? Could it be that the worst might not happen because not enough people are prepared to go along with the most extreme interpretation?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, I think that the whole point is that most of the people in the Swat Valley, while many will support some version of Sharia law, clearly were not supportive of the full agenda, if you will, of the Taliban there. The Taliban would not have been able to destroy dozens of girls schools if the local people hadn't wanted to educate their girls.

So the issue, I think as was just pointed out, really has to do with whose writ is going to hold sway in that area.

If the government were to move in, in support of local views and impose and administer Sharia law, that would be one thing. But, again, I think that the fact that you don't have a majority of the people there who are supportive of Sharia law as it is being implemented by the local Taliban is precisely the point.

These are people who have intimidated the local population, and they are enforcing their writ through arms.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you don't see an option of a more moderate interpretation of Sharia law?

ROBERT GRENIER: No, no. And the mere fact that they don't have public support for what they're doing will not matter to them one way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Anita Weiss, you see that differently?

ANITA WEISS: Well, I agree with what Robert just said. The big difference is, is that I think that by opening up this more extremist interpretation of other things beyond Sharia is a place where the state of Pakistan may well be able to hopefully gain some entry here.

This is not -- I mean, you have to remember that Swat is still even not the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. It's not Waziristan. It's a place that has been much more incorporated into mainstream Pakistan. It actually joined the country -- the writ of the declaration of accession, I think, was only 1969. It actually joined the country, but is really seminal to it.

I do think that we're going to see a stronger reaction amongst democratic and liberal forces in Pakistan. Already, Sherry Rehman is speaking out about, what does this mean for women's rights in this country, which is a states party to the United Nations CEDAW convention...

Connection to al-Qaida

JUDY WOODRUFF: So let me bring it -- because we're getting into some areas, and we've got just a short amount of time left.

ANITA WEISS: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Grenier, bottom line for the United States right now, wait and watch?

ROBERT GRENIER: Well, at the end of the day, we cannot do for Pakistanis what Pakistanis must do for themselves. We can support the government in trying to resist the encroachment of militants, but we really can't do anything that they themselves will not spearhead.

So the real concern that I have here -- and when you get down to a bottom line concerning U.S. national interest, the problem for us is that these areas are now in control of people who see themselves as part of an international movement which is led by al-Qaida. And when al-Qaida comes there to seek safe haven, these people will not say no.

JUDY WOODRUFF: However these particular laws are interpreted?

ROBERT GRENIER: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Robert Grenier and Anita Weiss, we're going to leave it there. Thank you both.

ANITA WEISS: Thank you.