Can Pakistan peace deal hold?
By Barbara Plett, BBC News, Mingora - June 20, 2008
Rugged mountains and fertile valleys slide past our windows as we near Swat, Pakistan's most famous tourist destination.
In the past year this scenic paradise in the north-west of the country has become infamous for violent conflict with Taleban militants.
But the fighting has ended, and we've come to see what's changed.
It's a fragile peace, judging by the size of the security escort we pick up outside the main city, Mingora. Two police vehicles, sometimes three, keep us inside city limits.
On the outskirts, we catch a glimpse of the seminary that had served as the Taleban base. From here local militants imposed their version of Islamic rule: they torched girls' schools, and beheaded their captives.
The Taleban were routed earlier this year when the army was brought in. And now the new provincial government has signed a peace deal with them, promising to release prisoners and gradually pull back the army in exchange for an end to attacks and intimidation.
As a result, the Haji Baba Government Girls' School has come back to life, just as the semester draws to a close. The courtyard echoes with the national anthem before girls disperse to their classrooms to write exams for courses they never had a chance to complete.
Miriam and her sister Hajra carefully do their sums, sitting on the floor because the school doesn't have money for desks. They've lost a year of education, and don't want to fall further behind.
But at their home nearby, their father, Sher Ali Khan, tells us he's making plans in case the peace doesn't hold.
"If the violence starts again we'll move," he says, "for the sake of our children's education."
"The threats have stopped, but the situation isn't peaceful," says Perveen Rehman, the headmistress of another girls' school.
"Any person who goes out from his home, we're not sure he'll come back, we're worried and feel insecure."
To get this peace the government accepted the Taleban's demand that Islamic law be implemented in Swat. Many here welcomed this, even though they hated the Taleban's violence.
At the Mingora district court Ali Shah has been fighting a land dispute for two years, trying to wrest back several acres he says were seized by relatives. He misses work three or four times a month to attend hearings, and he's fed up.
"If Islamic law is enforced here our cases will be solved in two or three weeks," he tells me. "Plus in the courts right now there's no difference between the oppressed and the oppressor. If Islamic law is imposed we'll be able to distinguish between the two and get justice."
Many others agree. The government system is painfully slow and seen to favour the powerful. For ordinary people Islamic law means swift justice.
But Perveen Rehman isn't sure what kind of Islamic law to expect.
"If it's real Islamic Sharia, I am hopeful that it will bring peace," she says carefully. "But if it's the Sharia the Taleban want to bring, I don't think it will be satisfying, because how would we educate the girls, and keep our own professions?"
One profession that has really suffered is the police force. Militants specifically targeted policemen, killing and wounding more than 100. Dozens deserted for lack of protection.
But at police training grounds in Mingora 200 recruits have turned up to join the force. Eager to pass the fitness test, they race around a grassy running track, some of them barefoot, encouraged by shouts from the watching veterans.
Officers are pleased by the turnout, it shows that morale is up, they say.
Still, people's apprehensions are understandable. Recently the Taleban suspended talks with the government, saying the prisoner release was moving too slowly. Perhaps it's a bargaining tactic. Some fear it may mean a return to violence.
And some, like lawyer Sher Muhammed, believe the government's already conceded too much to the militants.
"After the peace deal these people have reorganised themselves, and they are roaming, heavily armed, with sophisticated weapons in the villages," he says. "They show their force, and the society in these areas is harassed, scared and feeling unsafe."
America has also raised objections to such deals. It's worried about the flow of Taleban fighters across the border, afraid that peace in Pakistan means more war in Afghanistan.
Swat's not part of the frontier area that America's most worried about. Still, there's no mention in the peace agreement about ending cross-border attacks, and many local Taleban clearly sympathise with the Afghan insurgency.
"Our priority is to get Islamic law in Swat, not fight in Afghanistan," the Taleban spokesman, Muslim Khan, tells the BBC. "But even so, thousands of foreign troops have come to fight a few Taleban there. So why can't a Muslim go and help his brothers?"
The government is unapologetic about the Taleban peace deal.
"Seven years we've been fighting with the people and we got no result," says the chief government negotiator, Bashir Bilour. "Why should we keep doing something that can't get us any result, we should change the path… We are not a colony of America, we have our own policies."
A crucial measure of the policy's success would be a revival of tourism, the lifeblood of Swat. The violence has been a disaster: tens of thousands of workers have been laid off. Hotels stand empty, with silent hallways, vacant rooms and drained swimming pools. Waiters continue to lay tables for guests who never come.
One souvenir seller has been left with $150,000 worth of stock, his shop has been closed for six months. Like everyone else in Swat, he's hopeful, but uncertain, that the peace deal will turn things around.
"When they started these negotiations, the bomb blasts stopped," he says, "so maybe, maybe, I'm not sure, but maybe it's a good sign, I'm not sure… "
The agreement has brought some relief. It's part of a wider policy the government hopes can contain militancy and bring stability, not only in Swat but in the restive tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Much rides on it.
For many here, it's a strategy of the last resort, because all the alternatives have failed.