February 17, 2009— -- ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A man who once led 1,000 fighters across the border to fight U.S. troops in Afghanistan was welcomed like a hero in Pakistan's Swat valley today, one day after he forged a peace deal between the local chapter of the Taliban and the regional government.
Sufi Muhammad arrived in the regional capital, Mingora, to speak to his radical son-in-law, the leader of the Taliban in Swat, a group that has largely taken over what was once the most developed section of Pakistan's northwest. Muhammad's 300-car motorcade was welcomed by people who lined the streets, yelling "Long live peace! Long live Islam!"
The peace deal has largely shocked and worried Western observers as well as many of Pakistan's intelligentsia, who view it as an abdication of a former tourist site to a group that has cut off soldiers' heads, threatened women who dared shop alone and carried out a sustained assassination campaign against the local government.
But many residents of Swat, who have been suffering under those conditions for more than a year, see the deal as a relief and the best way to make their home safe again.
"I've come home after four months," Amjad Ali, a paramedic, told an ABC News reporter in Mingora today. "I want this deal to last so I never have to leave home and live a refugees' life any more."
The imposition of Islamic, or sharia law, in return for the military taking a defensive posture is seen largely in the West as an acceptance of a Afghanistan-style rule of law that bans female education. But the agreement seems to not include some of the more pernicious forms of sharia the local Taliban has enacted. Many residents of Mingora said they see this as a way to replace corrupt, slow courts with more efficient ones. And girls' schools are expected to be allowed to reopen.
The local government, the Awami National Party, largely saw the agreement as the only way to bring peace to the valley -- and one of the only ways to save what little popularity they currently have.
Deal Critics Say Militants Will Regroup and Plot
"The military operation in Swat was not working out," said Bushra Gohar, a senior vice president in the Awami National Party, which oversees the Northwest Frontier, including Swat. "The force actually exacerbated the operation. This is now bringing people to the table."
Gohar insisted that the ANP was not rewarding the Taliban's behavior, and repeatedly emphasized the need to hold them accountable for what they have done. But critics of the deal say militants won this battle from a position of strength, and predict that they will take this time to regroup and plot.
"They will be bold enough to challenge the writ of the government in the rest of Pakistan," said Zubair Towali, a Swat human rights activist. "It will not stop here."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to ABC News in Tokyo, largely declined to respond to it. But much of the West has echoed Towali's apprehensions.
"It is certainly reason for concern," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels, according to the Associated Press. "We should all be concerned by a situation in which extremists would have a safe haven. Without doubting the good faith of the Pakistani government, it is clear that the region is suffering very badly from extremists and we would not want it to get worse."
The federal government has not yet signed the deal, and on Tuesday morning, perhaps stung by the negative international reaction, government officials emailed reporters talking points describing the deal as conditional. "The proposed technical amendments in the regulation are conditioned on peace and laying down of arms by militants," Farahnaz Ispahani, a presidential spokeswoman, wrote.
Separately, a Pakistani official pointed out the deal has technically been in place since the late 1990s, and that this is simply an update to previous laws that were tweaked in part to appease Muhammad.
Today in Mingora, Muhammad said he was hopeful that talking to the group led by his son-in-law would bring peace.
"We will soon open dialogue with the Taliban. We will ask them to lay down their weapons. We are hopeful that they will not let us down," Muhammad said. "We will stay here in the valley until peace is restored."
But these agreements have been made before, and they have all dissolved into violence.
"The governments have gone through such agreements before," Towali said. "And those didn't work. It just gives the militants a chance to regroup and regain power."