It seems that the provincial government has agreed to the enforcement of Islamic law in Swat in exchange for a peace deal. What does this mean? First of all, this is really bad news for the state of war there. Furthermore, the deal is struck by one of the most secular parties in Pakistan (ANP), which is currently ruling the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
The news is bad for three main reasons:
a) The deal was struck after the failure of the military to defeat the militants. Lets be clear: The government was forced into making this deal by people who have been bombing schools and beheading people for the past few months. In return, the militants have a declared a 10 day cease fire. Prior peace deals in the tribal areas have mostly resulted in a stronger militancy - and many doubt that the outcome will be any different here. But this deal primarily gives us a status report of Pakistan army's fight against the militants.
b) Taliban expert, Ahmad Rashid, has been warning about Swat for a while. He suspects that, because of the success of drone attacks, Al-Qaeeda and Taliban leaderships are moving into the Swat district. This area has highly developed infrastructure and is only a 100 miles from Islamabad. But most importantly, it is quite far away from the Afghan border and the tribal areas and so may be safe from the drone attacks. Even if the drones are flying from bases in Pakistan, as Diane Feinstein recently stated, it will still be harder to attack on areas inside main Pakistan. If the Taliban and Al-Qaeeda leadership are indeed moving to Swat, this deal will further allow then to take control of the area.
c) This may be considered a model for other areas. Granted Swat has a peculiar history (all areas in Pakistan have their own peculiar histories), the strategy of terrorizing the population may be implementable in conservative enclaves in major cities, especially in Peshawar and Quetta, not to mention in other smaller districts of NWFP. Thus, the slow march of Taliban toward the more populous areas of Pakistan will continue. Remember, if Iraq with a population of 26 million was hard to control, then what hope do we have in a country of 170 million.
All of these reasons make Swat a crucial test for the battle against the Taliban. But things are not that simple. The people of Swat are relieved at the peace deal. They have been stuck for months between the brutal Taliban and an indiscriminant brute-force Pakistan military. For them, this is the only hope for peace and many are greeting this development with optimism (see this diary from Swat at BBC and Swat civilians caught in the crossfire. And some of them are not spared respite even in New York - see this story about Swati's in New York feeling the Taliban heat. ).
Sharia rule in Swat is in itself a complicated topic. Swat, for historical reasons, did not come under Pakistan's penal code until 1974 and even after that, the legal system has been spotty at best (yes, even compared to Pakistan standards). In the 1990s there was a negotiated attempt at enforcing Sharia system here - but later that got fizzled out. The ground reality, a decade later, is completely different. Whereas, in the previous attempted system a Sharia court decision could be challenged in state or federal court, the new deal eliminates that possibility. (Also, see Tom Heneghan's post at Reuters on the mixture of religion and politics behind the Sharia drive in Swat, and an analysis from the BBC (it also provides a nice historical context))
What does all of this mean for education, especially for girls? So far the militants have been blowing up schools. With legal authority in hand, they may simply put a ban on girls' education (co-education is certainly out). Well - at least they won't be blowing up schools. This is what we call today silver-lining in Pakistan. Welcome to the wild (north) west of Pakistan.