The deal agreed by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to redeploy the army in one of the country's semi-autonomous tribal areas is the leading edge of a new strategy, backed by the Bush administration, which recognizes that the Taliban insurgency -- at least on the Pakistani side of the border -- cannot be defeated by military means.
"The problem (on the border) is not purely military, and when the problem is not purely military, military means may not be the best way to solve it," Musharraf Spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukut Sultan told United Press International.
Sultan said the deal, struck with local leaders in the Federally Administered Tribal Agency of North Waziristan, involved a new modus vivendi between the Pakistani army and local tribal and militia leaders. The estimated 80,000 troops in the area will remain there, but have adopted a lower profile, and some of the checkpoints they formerly ran are now manned by local militia.
He said Islamabad has also pledged an influx of hundreds of millions of dollars of development cash, and reparations for the damage to property and loss of life caused during the military's operations. Local militants or militiamen captured during the operation have also been released.
In return, local leaders have pledged not to move around with heavy weapons, to end infiltration by Taliban forces across the border into Afghanistan, and to expel any foreign jihadis who do not adopt what the agreement calls "a peaceable life."
Terrorism analyst and author Peter Bergen told UPI that senior U.S. military officials believe deals are in the offing in more of Pakistan's seven tribal agencies.
"This is the second of seven. Baujur is next," he said, referring to a third agency adjoining Waziristan where many believe al-Qaida number two Ayman al-Zawahiri is hiding, and where U.S. forces launched a missile strike earlier this year in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him.
Sultan maintained that there was no security problem in Baujur, but said that "wherever we do have problems," they would look to resolve them through negotiation initially.
"The use of force is only useful up to a certain point; after that it can become counter-productive," he said, adding that the continuing fighting had been driving tribal youth into the arms of militants.
Bergen said that privately, senior U.S. military officers were worried that the deal would create a more permissive environment for Taliban insurgents fighting U.S. and allied forces across the border in Afghanistan -- and risk providing a sanctuary for jihadi terrorists in Pakistan.
A staffer who recently returned from a congressional trip to the region confirmed that U.S. military officers on the ground were apprehensive about the impact of the new strategy. "They're really worked up about it... Especially the ones looking for the high value targets," who were already "frustrated" with the limits to their hot pursuit abilities across the border.
"They clearly think (the deal) is going to make things worse," the staffer said.
But publicly, U.S. officials -- beginning the very day the news of the deal broke in America with President George W. Bush -- have been insistently upbeat.
"What he is doing," Bush told ABC News of Musharraf, "is entering agreements with governors in the regions of the country, in the hopes that there would be an economic vitality, there will be alternatives to violence and terror."
"We are watching this very carefully, obviously," he added.
Privately, officials -- at least at the State Department -- are more pragmatic in their view, according to analysts who speak with them.
"There is a recognition that this is just a coming to terms with reality," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst on the region and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Weinbaum said that the center of gravity of Taliban activity was further south, in Balochistan, and that the army had already been moving its focus in that direction.
"They got their head handed to them," said Bergen of the efforts of the Pakistani military in the tribal agencies, where they have lost hundreds of soldiers in clashes with armed militants. The area is inhabited by fierce Pashtun tribes who straddle the border, and have never fully accepted its legitimacy -- and who, as Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri told CNN at the weekend: "Have never been completely tamed, as it were. Even when the British were there..."
A U.S. intelligence official, authorized to speak to the media, but not to reveal his name or agency, told UPI that the Pakistani commando forces hunting high value targets in the area would continue to operate. "I don't think they've ceded the field," the official said.
He added that the military operations in the area had created "an awful lot of bad blood," and that the Pakistanis saw it as "time to do some fence-mending" and try to win the support of local people.
He said that the results would be measured in a drop off in cross-border incursions by armed Taliban forces, and better co-operation with and intelligence from local tribal leaders.
Some analysts consider that wishful thinking.
Alexis Debat, a former French counter-terrorism official who is now a scholar at the Nixon Institute in Washington and who has just returned from a fact-finding trip to Pakistan, said the people the government was dealing with were to some extent the problem, rather than the solution.
The traditional structures of tribal power were increasingly being supplanted by the rule of Islamic clerics sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida, he said, adding Islamic religious schools or madrassas were providing "the base for the take over of the tribal areas' ... local administration by the local Taliban."
Part one of three. Tomorrow's installment will look at what results U.S. officials hope to see from the new strategy and how quickly.