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Pakistan Tries to Negotiate Peace in Tribal Areas

Pakistan is trying a new approach of negotiations and development projects to secure its volatile tribal regions. But U.S. and Afghan officials are concerned it will not be enough to keep Taleban militants from using the area to as a launch pad for attacks in Afghanistan. The issue is particularly worrisome as the militants are expected to begin a new offensive in the coming weeks. From Islamabad, VOA correspondent Benjamin Sand reports.

Pakistani authorities this week signed their third peace agreement with local leaders in the often-lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Army spokesman Major General Wahid Arshad says tribesmen in the Bajur region have agreed to sever ties with foreign militants - often Islamic militants who lead attacks in Afghanistan.

"This undertaking given by the tribes is basically because the tribes have now realized it is important to have peace in their area and it is also important to ensure no one uses their area coming from Afghanistan and other place," said Arshad.

The Bajur deal is part of a new strategy, using negotiations, development projects and other enticements to break ties between area residents and the Taleban.

Towns and villages all along the rugged area have been overrun by the Islamist hard-liners. Residents say some villages have become little more than jihadist way stations in the fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The Taleban, who advocate an extreme fundamentalist form of Islam, ran Afghanistan for several years until being ousted by a U.S.-led invasion force in 2001. Many Taleban leaders and their allies in the al Qaida terrorism network are believed to be hiding along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

For several years, Pakistan's military has battled the insurgents, but General Arshad says the army can only accomplish so much.

"Military operations are only the means to and end and not an end in themselves," he said.

Officials from the United States and Afghanistan say the Pakistan military has had little success in preventing cross-border raids. And some experts say Pakistan's military operations are increasingly seen as counter productive. They say incidents such as a government air strike on an Islamic school last October, in which more than 80 people died, only increase anger at Islamabad.

General Arshad says under the new strategy, 80,000 troops in the tribal area will continue to pressure militants, while the government focuses on wooing residents.

Security analysts have been critical of the new strategy. The International Crisis Group's Samina Ahmed says pro-Taleban militants continue to expand their influence in the region.

"What we have witnessed in this region is an alliance between the Taleban and local militants," said Ahmed. "In effect, in parts of the tribal agencies the militants are running parallel administrations."

There are reports of Taleban fighters taking control of villages and ordering men to grow beards, women to wear all-covering burqas and closing schools and other public venues they consider un-Islamic.

Despite such concerns, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam this week said the new approach is bearing fruit. She noted a recent battle between tribesmen and the Taleban, in which more than 100 militants died.

"This shows the success of the strategy that the government of Pakistan has adopted," she said. "If anyone had any doubt about the success of this deal it should be obvious to them now."

U.S. officials, however, are among those who are not convinced by the new strategy.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, in Islamabad last week, said it is too early to assess its long-term effectiveness.

"I think everybody recognizes that at this point - and perhaps that will change - the political deal in Waziristan has not stopped the militancy," he said.

Boucher left little doubt that Washington has made stabilizing the volatile tribal areas a top priority.

The U.S. will provide $750 million over the next five years to help redevelop the region.

"I think this commitment to the development of Pakistan, this commitment to a long-term relationship, is another example of the very broad and deep relationship we have and that we are developing with Pakistan," said Boucher.

Security experts say the U.S. effort makes sense. Militants use the area's crushing poverty to help recruit new foot soldiers, so experts say development projects could go a long way toward stabilizing the region.

But economic diplomacy is a long-term effort, and so is Pakistan's new strategy of winning local support in the fight against foreign militants.

The concern here is more immediate. U.S. defense experts say Taleban insurgents are massing along the border and could be days away from a new offensive against U.S. and Afghan forces.

Against that backdrop, the latest peace agreement in the tribal areas is likely to generate more concern, not less, about Pakistan's commitment to securing the tribal region.