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White House backing new plan to defuse insurrection in Pakistan

WASHINGTON—A U.S.-backed plan to defeat Islamist militants in Pakistan's autonomous tribal areas has backfired badly, and the Bush administration is working with Pakistan to come up with a new strategy to defuse the insurrection.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf "sees that what he was doing wasn't working," said one U.S. official who's familiar with the new plan. "He really has a mess."

Now Musharraf's government is attempting to negotiate truces in the areas, expand local police forces and introduce development projects to reward tribal leaders who break with the militants. The Bush administration has pledged millions of dollars to the new effort, said the official, who, like others familiar with the plan, spoke only if granted anonymity.

Ending the uprising by Islamist militants aligned with Osama bin Laden and Taliban rebels is crucial to American-led efforts to contain the worst surge in Taliban violence in Afghanistan since 2001. The bloodshed is adding to the Bush administration's woes in the Middle East and other fronts in the war on terrorism.

Pakistan deployed 80,000 troops in the areas, which border Afghanistan, at Washington's behest to hunt down bin Laden and his sympathizers and secure Pakistan's side of the border. The Bush administration reportedly has spent nearly $1 billion since 2003 to underwrite the Pakistan army's operations.

But the army's use of artillery and helicopter gunships—as well as U.S. airstrikes on suspected al-Qaida hideouts—has killed numerous civilians and stoked popular ire.

That anger has given rise to a movement for an independent Taliban-style Islamist state. In some parts of the autonomous areas, militants have banned music, set up Islamic courts and executed opponents, including tribal leaders.

Fighting has claimed hundreds of lives on both sides, displaced thousands of civilians and stoked ethnic frictions because the tribes are minority Pashtuns and most of the troops are majority Punjabis.

The militants continue harboring al-Qaida fighters and providing recruits and refuge to Taliban rebels fighting in Afghanistan against government, U.S. and NATO forces. Afghan officials accuse Pakistan of doing little to halt cross-border infiltration or to close Taliban bases on its soil, a charge that Islamabad denies.

Some American officials and independent experts fear that it may be too late to defuse the uprising in two of the seven tribal areas, southern and northern Waziristan.

"I think it's a very shaky situation," Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, the author of the book "Taliban," said in a telephone interview.

Musharraf wanted to pull back the troops to their home bases on the eastern border with India. The Bush administration was opposed, concerned that without the Pakistani army's presence there would be less incentive for militant groups to negotiate with the government. "You will have to keep the army in the game for when it is time to take out serious militants," the U.S. official said.

So Musharraf opened truce negotiations with militant leaders. Under the truces, the army would pull back into garrisons and towns and act only to thwart major threats.

In its place, the Bush administration would provide millions of dollars for a massive expansion of the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary police force recruited from the tribes and led by regular army officers, and other tribal police units.

"What they will do is static border posts, static police posts. That gets us lots of jobs and puts them (tribesmen) in uniform," the U.S. official said.

The Pentagon also has secretly been training and equipping a new Pakistani special operations force to pursue al-Qaida fighters hiding in the tribal areas. The force is being provided with night-vision equipment and helicopters.

Musharraf also is working with Washington on a plan for a massive development program, including construction of clinics, schools and roads, to reward tribal leaders who agree to end ties with the militants.

An industrial zone on the Afghan-Pakistani border would be created from which Pakistani and Afghan firms would export wares such as textiles tax-free to the United States. President Bush unveiled the so-called Reconstruction Opportunity Zone during a brief visit to Pakistan in March.

It's hoped that such projects will create jobs and patronage for the region's new power brokers and the military regime. Musharraf is seeking $150 million annually over the next five years for the effort, the official said.

Some U.S. officials and independent experts doubt that the strategy will work.

They fear that Musharraf's regime will use it to squeeze more money out of Washington in the name of fighting terrorism while doing little to bring real change to the tribal areas.

The truces could break down easily, especially if more civilians are killed, they said.

Previous development efforts have failed because of corruption and the region's lack of infrastructure, trained manpower and security. Moreover, vested interests want the areas to remain a lawless corridor for smuggling foreign products and narcotics.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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