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 Qaeda-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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda-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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda 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 Qaeda senior leadership."
Vickers gave the Pakistani military high marks for keeping Al Qaeda in check in Pakistan's cities and other "settled" locations.
"They have been less effective in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, and that's the problem we face right now," he said. "They have suffered large numbers of casualties in military operations."
As the cease-fire was declared, the army announced that eight soldiers -- including three generals -- were killed Wednesday when their U.S.-supplied Bell 411 helicopter crashed in South Waziristan. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military spokesman, said it appeared the crash was due to technical problems and not hostile fire.
On Tuesday, U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell told a Senate hearing the tribal areas have provided Al Qaeda with a safe haven similar to what it enjoyed in Afghanistan before the U.S.-led war on terror began in 2001.
Thousands of civilians have been displaced by the fighting in the border region, and many are sheltering in open areas in the towns of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank, just outside South Waziristan, during a bitter winter.
Ismail Khan, a journalist who reports on the border area for the newspaper Dawn, said both sides appeared to be respecting the truce. But he said the military's apparent decision to halt its operation against militants in South Waziristan raised questions about Pakistan's strategy in dealing with the Taliban.
"Why did the government launch the military operation and then abandon it half way through without achieving its objective?" Khan told Dawn News TV. "It boggles the mind."
Maulvi Mohammed Umar, a spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban militants, told The Associated Press the cease-fire was "for an indefinite period," and was the "result of our talks with the government."
Abbas denied knowledge of any talks, but said militants in South Waziristan had stopped shooting at security forces for the past two days and had withdrawn somewhat from positions in the area.
However, Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz said the government would soon form a jirga, or tribal council of influential figures, "for a dialogue with the militants." He claimed security forces had "broken the back" of Mehsud's fighters.
A truce, even if short-lived, may help authorities maintain order during the crucial Feb. 18 elections aimed at restoring civilian government after eight years of military rule. The balloting was postponed for six weeks after Bhutto was assassinated in a bombing and gun attack during a campaign rally in Rawalpindi.
In January, Mehsud fighters launched a series of assaults on military bases in South Waziristan, underscoring the government's weak grip on the region U.S. officials say is a safe haven for Al Qaeda.
Last week, a U.S. missile strike killed Abu Laith al-Libi, a top Al Qaeda commander, in neighboring North Waziristan.
U.S. officials have said they believe Osama bin Laden is hiding in the border region, a finding the Pakistanis dispute.
Pakistan's government said Wednesday it remained committed to the fight against Islamic extremism. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq told reporters that Pakistan had already made "more sacrifices than any other country" in the war against Islamic terrorism.