As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan gets under way, the Pakistani government has announced a ceasefire in the restive Swat Valley for the duration of the holiday. The fighting has been particularly bad in the tiny Bajaur Agency, where over half of the population is said to have been displaced, and while Interior Minister Rehman Malik wouldn’t commit to this being the end of the nearly month-long Bajaur offensive, he did say the displaced could return to the region “without any fear”.
This represents an astonishing 180 degree turn for the Pakistani government in general and Minister Malik in particular, as only last week Bajaur’s tribal elders attempted to broker an end to the fighting, and succeeded in getting the Tehreek-e Taliban to announce a unilateral ceasefire. Malik condemned the ceasefire as unacceptable, and vowed the fighting would continue unless the militants agreed to a total, public surrender.
Yet the impending start of Ramadan was not a secret to anybody last week (in fact, many of the displaced had been urging the government for this very action), leaving one to wonder why the Pakistani government would so vociferously reject a ceasefire a week before if they intended to announce one of their own. The key to this ceasefire is not in fact a religious holiday, but Saturday’s presidential election.
The initial offer and rejection of the ceasefire happened on Sunday, August 24th, and the following day the ruling Pakistani Peoples Party lost its largest coalition partner. With the election less than a week away, an increasing number of questions have been raised about Asif Ali Zardari’s suitability for office, and yesterday popular opposition figure Imran Khan urged the major opposition parties to unite against Zardari’s candidacy. The New York Times reports that the ceasefire in fact came at the behest of tribal area legislators, who offered to support Zardari’s candidacy in return for an end to the air strikes.
Top Tehreek-e Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar is quoted by the AP as welcoming the ceasefire, and reiterating his previous offer to start negotiations with the government. Reuters, however, claimed to have received a phone call from Swat District Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan, who denied having received any orders from the umbrella group to stop attacks. He did say if his faction received such an order they would stop.
Also unclear is what the Bush Administration’s response will be, as the announcement comes just days after a secret meeting with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff to coordinate strategy on the border. The administration has been harshly critical of previous Pakistani attempts to secure peace deals with militant groups, and is unlikely to view this announcement in a more favorable light.