PESHAWAR, Pakistan — The secular party that won last week's elections in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province plans to open peace talks with al Qaida-allied Islamic insurgents, a drastic departure from the military crackdowns that the national army has pursued with U.S. backing for the last five years.
The Awami National Party says army offensives in the tribal region abutting the province have killed, maimed and displaced untold numbers of civilians, driven recruits into the arms of the radicals and helped fuel a surge in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks across the country.
"The war against terror has failed. So there should be no war," said Haji Mohammad Adeel, one of the party's most senior leaders. "The only solution is peace. We will do it with negotiations, not with bombs, not with guns, not with airstrikes."
To convince militants to quit the insurgency and to weaken the popular support that allows al Qaida to maintain a sanctuary in the region, the party pledges to build clinics, schools, roads and other infrastructure for the area's 3 million desperately poor people.
The party also wants to end the anachronistic, colonial-era system under which the seven Federally Administered Tribal Agencies have been run and fold them into the province, where they'd be subject to Pakistan's political, legal and economic systems.
The people of the tribal agencies are "not equal with other citizens of Pakistan. The Supreme Court and superior courts of Pakistan are not allowed to extend their jurisdiction there," Adeel said. "When there are no jobs, no source of income, no health facilities, no educational facilities, no justice, no political rights, what can you expect if people are offered money and guns?"
The party's plan and the support it's drawn from other political parties may help explain why the White House continues to advocate a key role for Pakistan's much-reviled president, Pervez Musharraf, despite the defeat of his political allies in the elections Feb. 18.
The Bush administration has lauded the former army general as an "indispensable ally" in the fight against Islamic extremism for deploying some 85,000 troops in the tribal areas. As president, Musharraf also holds administrative authority over the region.
The Bush administration distrusts any peace deals after several deeply flawed accords reached under Musharraf collapsed, although not before freeing up militants to join the guerrilla war in Afghanistan.
"It should not automatically be equated with appeasement . . . but the ANP has come up with no specifics, and its approach has not been tested," said a Western diplomat who asked to remain anonymous, citing the issue's sensitivity.
The party's plans face an array of other potential opponents: the army, which could lose U.S. military aid if peace prevails; Pakistani intelligence services and Islamic parties that patronize the radicals for political purposes; and smugglers and drug barons, who've used the lawless region for years to transport their lucre to and from Afghanistan.
Al Qaida and the most uncompromising militant groups are likely to intensify terrorist strikes to forestall any possibility of being forced out of their sanctuaries in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies' remote mountains and valleys.
The Awami National Party already has been targeted by terrorist attacks, including the suicide bombing of a campaign rally near the provincial capital of Peshawar earlier this month that killed nearly 30 people.
The party, a secular organization representing ethnic Pashtuns, captured the most — but not a majority — of the seats in the North West Frontier Province assembly, trouncing Islamic parties that had governed the province since 2002 elections rigged in their favor.
The party is negotiating with the Pakistan Peoples Party of slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to form a coalition to govern the province. It's also expected to join Bhutto's party, which won the largest share of National Assembly seats, in a federal coalition government.
The party's control of the provincial government and its participation in the federal coalition could give it the heft it needs with the army — which has been stretched by the guerrilla war — to begin testing its peace plan.
Many people are skeptical that the strategy will work. They point out that many of the elders required for tribal assemblies have been killed or are too terrified to participate. Moreover, some militants will refuse to participate.
"Doing a peace deal with the Taliban is not possible," said Ali Shah, the brother of a tribal chief who's working with the government to prevent militants from entering his territory in the insurgent-infested North Waziristan tribal agency.
Hamid Ullah Jan Afridi, an independent member of the Pakistani Senate from the Khyber Tribal Agency, said his people would fight integration with the province. Their grievances can be resolved faster through tribal assemblies than in Pakistan's corrupt, case-clogged courts, he said.
"The tribal people will very strongly resist it. It could be a civil war within Pakistan," Afridi said, to the nods of tribal elders sitting on nearby rope beds outside his Peshawar house.
Adeel acknowledged the peace plan's hurdles.
"It's not easy. But we have to start. We have to take the first step," he said. "The basic problem is the Pakistani army, the Pakistani establishment and the Americans. You can't fight for another 20 years."