WASHINGTON, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- More than a month after Pakistan inked a peace deal with local leaders in the restive tribal region straddling its frontier with Afghanistan, some NATO troops are trying the same tactic on their side of the border, redeploying to barracks and relying on tribal militias to keep Taliban insurgents in check.
The truces are part of a new "hearts and minds" strategy on both sides of the border, as coalition and Pakistani authorities attempt to engage local tribal leaders and woo them away from Taliban extremists.
But the NATO deal, in four northern districts of Helmand province, comes as evidence mounts that the Pakistani truce in Waziristan has failed to reduce cross-border infiltration by Taliban fighters looking to engage coalition troops in Afghanistan.
"The news is bad," said one Senate staffer following the issue, citing recent media reports that the U.S. military had seen a trebling of attacks on the Afghan side of the border.
"It is clear that the Taliban is not negotiating (with Pakistani authorities) to end the conflict, but to increase their leverage in the conflict," Husain Haqqani, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University, told United Press International.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf insists that his deal, inked Sept. 5 between government officials and local figures described as tribal elders, mujahedin, students and Islamic scholars, is not with the Taliban, but it has been endorsed by Taliban military commanders in TV interviews.
Citing reports about the hasty closure of a Taliban office opened soon after the deal in Miran Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, Congressional Research Service analyst Alan Kronstadt told UPI that the Pakistani government had "a sensitivity to any signs that the Taliban are openly running an administrative infrastructure" there.
Nonetheless, questions about the peace agreement -- and the squabbling about the broader issue of cross-border security with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai -- overshadowed Musharraf's recent visit to the United States.
The diplomatic deal strung together between the two leaders at the state dinner in Washington -- a tribal councils known as a Loya Jirga will be convened on each side of the border before the year's end to try and chart a way forward -- is a classic exercise in kicking the can down the road, say critics.
Noted reporter and analyst Ahmed Rashid reported from Kabul last week that several cabinet ministers there were already warning that the loya jirga would be "manipulated by Islamabad for its own ends."
Some experts fear that U.S. policy in the region -- blinded by a total reliance on Musharraf and hamstrung by commitments of resources and attention elsewhere -- risks allowing the creation of a sanctuary where Islamic militants, perhaps including the senior leadership of al-Qaida, can use the fast-approaching winter months to re-group, and plan and train for new attacks, not just in Afghanistan, but in the United States or Europe too.
Afghan officials last week told reporters in Kabul that many of the 17 would-be suicide bombers they had recently apprehended had been trained in a camp near Data Khel in North Waziristan.
In the longer term, too, a viable security strategy for the border area, the never-tamed mountain fastness that is the home of fiercely independent Pashtun and other tribesmen, is seen as crucial for U.S. security.
"Until we transform the tribal belt, the United States is at risk," Barnett Rubin, of the Council on Foreign Relations, told a recent congressional hearing.
Counter insurgency strategists say it makes sense to try and win over tribal forces who might otherwise be recruited by the Taliban.
"The effort to engage the Taliban's tribal base makes sense," said Haqqani, "if at the same time you are degrading the ideological leadership through a military campaign."
The British general in command of NATO's forces in Afghanistan told The London Times at the weekend that he was withdrawing his troops from their remote fire-bases in four districts of Helmand province, part of the Taliban's southern Afghan heartland and across the border from Pakistan's restive Baluchistan, where the recent killing of a separatist leader has roiled local sentiment.
The paper reported that the deal followed a personal plea to Karzai by a delegation of tribal elders, who pledged that if allowed to appoint their own police chief and district officials, they would keep out Taliban militants.
According to The Times, the four northern districts of Sangin, Musa Qala, Nawzad and Kajaki will be guarded by new auxiliary militias made up of local tribesmen and paid by the coalition.
"These are the same people who two weeks ago would have been vulnerable to be recruited as Taliban fighters," it quoted Richards as saying.
Last week, GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told a reporter traveling with him in Afghanistan that some of the "people who call themselves Taliban" needed to be brought into the structures of government in Afghanistan.
Spokeswoman Amy Hall later clarified that he did not mean "Taliban fighters," but rather "tribes often targeted by Taliban recruitment."
Haqqani said there is not enough information in the public domain yet about the local leaders who signed the NATO deal in Helmand to make an assessment.
But the Pakistani truce in Waziristan, where border and internal checkpoints are manned by one of four different kinds of local constabulary or militia, is not an encouraging precedent.
Kronstadt said the U.S. military was monitoring the Waziristan situation closely. "There is concern about the capabilities of some of these militias," he said. "Some of them are just local boys," lightly armed, and may be unwilling to take on much better equipped and trained Taliban units.
Haqqani said the problem was that one end of the strategy was missing -- Pakistan was not engaging the Taliban's hard-core leadership militarily. "The deal (in Waziristan) keeps the ideological leadership intact," he said, adding that Musharraf's strategy was to "rely on the tribal leaders to keep it under control."
Both he and Kronstadt also pointed out that the traditional tribal power structures in the area had been undermined and infiltrated for 20 years by the constant presence of armed Islamic extremists.
"You can't just turn the clock back and hand power back to the tribal leaders," said Kronstadt. "Rural society is much more religiously conservative than it was" before the mujahedin came, said Haqqani. Karzai told reporters last week that 150 non-religious traditional leaders had been killed in North Waziristan recently. "The traditional secular Pashtun leadership of Pakistan has been undermined systematically and violently," he said.