Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan Taliban militants declared a cease-fire Wednesday in fighting with Pakistani forces, and the government said it was preparing for peace talks with al-Qaida-linked extremists in the lawless tribal area near the border with Afghanistan.
Any deal that allows armed Islamic extremists to operate on Pakistani soil would run counter to U.S. demands for the government to crack down on militants. The Bush administration contends a failed truce last year allowed al-Qaida to expand its reach into this turbulent, nuclear-armed country, and the U.S. has sounded warnings in recent days about a revival of militant strength.
A spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a militant umbrella group, said the new cease-fire would include not only the tribal belt along the Afghan border but also the restive Swat region to the east where the army has also battled pro-Taliban fighters.
Tehrik-e-Taliban is led by Baitullah Mehsud, an al-Qaida-linked commander based in South Waziristan whom President Pervez Musharraf's government has blamed for a series of suicide attacks across Pakistan, including the Dec. 27 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
The government has repeatedly tried to strike peace deals with local pro-Taliban militants, urging them to expel foreign al-Qaida militants the U.S. has warned may use their sanctuary inside Pakistan's tribal regions to plot terror attacks around the globe.
If a cease-fire sticks and militants halt attacks, it could boost Musharraf's popularity as his political allies prepare for crucial Feb. 18 parliamentary elections.
But the negotiation strategy, has mostly backfired in the past, with militants failing to honor agreements. A cease-fire in North Waziristan in September 2006, which collapsed in July, was widely seen as a setback in the war against terror, giving the Taliban and al-Qaida a freer hand to stage cross-border attacks into Afghanistan and extend their control of areas within Pakistan.
In Washington, the State Department signaled it would oppose any agreement that resembled the last truce.
"I think everyone understands, including President Musharraf, that that agreement with tribal leaders did not in fact produce the results that everyone, including President Musharraf, had intended," deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.
"We would certainly want to see that any arrangement made was effective at pursuing President Musharraf's goal and pursuing our goal, which is being able to defend against these kinds of extremist groups," he said. "We want to see an agreement that is effective; the last agreement was not effective by President Musharraf's own admission."
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a report submitted Wednesday to Congress that the next attack on the United States will most likely be launched by al-Qaida operating in those "under-governed regions" of Pakistan.
Mike Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told reporters Wednesday the volatile border area "remains a source of sanctuary for the al-Qaida senior leadership."