ISLAMABAD – Taliban fighters resumed armed patrols in the Swat Valley’s main town Sunday, an official said, a sign of severe strain on a much-criticized peace deal with the government that imposes Islamic law in part of Pakistan’s northwest.
The militants’ patrols in Mingora followed the Pakistani army’s allegations that the insurgents were in “gross violation” of the peace pact and an accusation that they slaughtered two security personnel. But the patrols also came as the regional government tried to boost the peace effort by announcing the creation of an Islamic appeals court.
Yet even that move hit an immediate snag. A hardline cleric mediating the peace deal rejected the court, saying he was not consulted on its make-up.
Swat is likely to be a major topic of discussion when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari visits with President Barack Obama in Washington later this week. Zardari is expected to plead for more money to aid his country’s battered economy and security forces to help stem the Taliban tide. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is also set to be part of the talks.
Pakistan insists on using both negotiations and force in tackling violent extremism in its borders. It is an approach that worries U.S. officials, who warn that peace deals simply create militant safe havens and allow the insurgents time to strengthen.
Taliban and al-Qaida fighters already have strongholds along Pakistan’s border regions from which to plan attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and American leaders do not want to see Swat turn into another major sanctuary for them.
As tensions mounted Sunday, the government ordered a curfew for Swat from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., said Khushal Khan, a top administrator who confirmed the patrols. He said officials were discussing what to do if the militants violate the order.
Under the peace deal struck in February, the government agreed to impose Islamic law in Swat and the surrounding areas that make up the Malakand Division. Instead of laying down their arms as some had hoped, the Taliban in Swat soon entered the adjacent Buner district, also covered by the deal, and began imposing their harsh brand of Islam there.
Buner lies just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Islamabad, a fact that raised alarms domestically and abroad. The Pakistani military went on the offensive over the past week to drive the Taliban out of Buner.
An army statement Sunday said 80 militants had been killed so far along with three soldiers. An important local commander was believed to be among the dead militants in Buner, the statement said.
But the army’s statement focused much more on Swat itself.
It accused militants there of looting a bank, attacking a power grid and partially blowing up a bridge. It said security forces discovered at least three explosives-laden vehicles apparently intended for suicide attacks and that clashes between security forces and militants left at least one soldier dead.
The various incidents put the militants “in gross violation of the peace accord militants” and threatened “the lives of the (civilian) population, civil administration as well as security forces personnel,” the statement said.
On top of that list, two security personnel were discovered with their throats slit and their bodies and faces mutilated Sunday in Swat, a security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media on the record.
Still, the army’s harsh stance does not guarantee a return to fighting in Swat itself. Some two years of clashes between the two sides killed hundreds and displaced up to one-third of Swat’s 1.5 million residents before the peace deal was crafted.
The army, which has struggled in the field of counterinsurgency, could not keep the militants from taking control of most of the valley. It is unclear that it has the capacity to defeat the Swat Taliban now or the stomach to try.
The dangerous nature of Swat made it difficult to independently verify the army’s accusations Sunday.
The Swat Taliban’s spokesman could not immediately be reached for reaction.
Despite the strains on the peace pact, Pakistani officials insist that it retains, at the very least, symbolic value.
By carrying out their part of the agreement, they can gain more support from the public to take action against the Taliban if the militants violate the pact, officials have said.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the northwest province’s information minister, said Saturday that the formation of the Islamic appellate court — the Darul Qaza — meant the government was close to fulfilling its side of the bargain.
He said two judges have been appointed to the panel, with more to be named later.
Already a handful of judges trained in Islamic law, called qazis, have been hearing relatively routine disputes in Swat. Hussain said more such judges would be named throughout the rest of Malakand Division.
A speedier justice system has long been a demand of local residents in Swat, where regular courts are corrupt and inefficient. It’s a grievance Swat Taliban militants have exploited in their brutal campaign there.
The new appellate court takes away justification for militants to keep fighting, Hussain said.
“Now anyone carrying arms would be treated as a rebel and would be prosecuted in the qazi courts,” he said.
But the announcement did not satisfy a hard-line cleric who has mediated the deal, his spokesman said. Amir Izzat Khan said the cleric, Sufi Muhammad, was supposed to be consulted on the makeup of the appeals court but was not.
“We reject this Darul Qaza and further consultation is on to discuss the future line of action,” Khan said.
Much remained unclear about the appellate court, including when it would start functioning and whether its decisions could be reviewed by Pakistan’s Supreme Court — an institution that Muhammad rejects.