Best U.S. stance on Pakistan politics: Silence

Freedom New Mexico

The Pakistani government has said it will allow the imposition of Sharia or Islamic law in the picturesque Swat Valley, a lush mountainous region that has long been a prized tourist destination but recently has been home to violent insurrectionary activity.

Whether it is a shrewd move with the potential to divide religious but otherwise peaceful Muslims from violent insurrectionists or a sign of weakness that suggests a fragile Pakistani civil government has given up is difficult to say.

The best bet for the U.S. government is to watch carefully to determine what results.

The move on Sharia law came as part of a cease-fire with followers of the radical cleric Maulana Qazi Fazlullah, who in late 2007 took effective control of much of the region and sought, often through terror tactics including beheadings, to impose Taliban-style mores on the residents.

It is significant and potentially troubling because the Swat Valley is considered part of the “settled” regions in Pakistan, only 100 miles north of the capital, Islamabad. In the more distant tribal regions along the Afghan border the central government has never really had effective control.

One can see a strategic rationale for the move. The hope is that by allowing Sharia law Muslims who might otherwise be tempted to cooperate with violent militants can be split off from them, thus weakening the militants.

Muazzam Gill, a Pakistani-born international affairs commentator for UPI, said: “For the United States, prudence and perhaps a dignified silence is the best course at this time.”

If the U.S. condemns the move boldly, it will be taken in much of Pakistan as a condemnation of Islam itself. He thinks U.S. regional envoy Richard Holbrooke, who has expressed concern but in general has done more listening than arm-twisting so far, has adopted roughly the right tone.

Creating a wedge is a good theory, Gill said, but much depends on which of several possible versions of Sharia is used and how it is implemented. Pakistani and regional authorities have promised it will not be the brutal Taliban-style regime that shocked so many consciences when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. But the proof will be in the results.

Insofar as it relegates women to second-class (or worse) status and downgrades education, even moderate Sharia law is offensive to many westerners. It is appropriate for a private organization like Amnesty International to express grave reservations, as it has. The U.S. government, however, would do well to be more circumspect.