PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Across Pakistan's frontier, dozens of groups call themselves the Taliban. Some are militant fundamentalists, demanding Islamic law. Others are smugglers, using the name to scare people. Sometimes they team up, or work with al-Qaida militants and Taliban fighters in neighboring Afghanistan. Sometimes they fight each other.
The new Pakistani leaders elected in February have pledged to talk with militants in Pakistan's tribal areas rather than using mostly force to confront a rise in Islamic militancy. They say President Pervez Musharraf's largely military approach to the war on terrorism and his support of U.S. policies since 2001 have created more insurgents.
But some Pakistanis question just whom the government plans to talk to and how it can negotiate any long-term deal. The Taliban in Pakistan's border areas are not a monolithic, well-organized group but many groups with different fiefdoms, according to analysts and police. Many negotiations will be needed.
In the past, militants have used peace deals to regroup and stage attacks across the border against Western troops and the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. Similar negotiations in Afghanistan since 2005 have done little to quell the violence there.
"I'm not so hopeful," said Abdul Raziq, a senator from restive Dera Ismail Khan in North-West Frontier province, which borders the Taliban sanctuary of South Waziristan in Pakistan.
"The main thing is: What is the agenda of these people? What do they want? The answer is very simple. They want the U.S. and the Western countries to get out of Afghanistan, and they want Musharraf to stop cooperating with the Americans and the West, and they want to bring in their own version of Islamic law. How is it possible?" Raziq said.
In interviews with a dozen political leaders and other ethnic Pashtuns from the tribal areas and neighboring North-West Frontier province, people welcomed any attempt at peace but were skeptical that a deal could be reached. Those who supported talks also said the only way they would succeed is if Western troops leave neighboring Afghanistan - not likely, given the commitment of NATO and the U.S. since driving the Taliban from power in 2001.
The Pashtun tribal areas have long been considered havens for terrorists - semi-autonomous regions ruled by tribal custom where everyone from al-Qaida leaders to kidnappers has found shelter. Many terrorist plots in the West originated in training camps in the tribal areas or along the country's porous border with Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have said they welcome the new government of Pakistan, but they have worried publicly about what is happening in the tribal belt.
CIA Director Michael Hayden said recently that if there were another terrorist attack against the U.S., it would likely originate in the border area of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He told NBC that the haven for al-Qaida there presented "a clear and present danger" to the West.
The situation in the tribal areas has become more tense. Since joining the war on terrorism, Musharraf and the army he ran as army chief until stepping down in November pursued a mostly military approach. For the first time in Pakistan's history, the army - seen as outsiders, a mostly ethnic Punjabi force - pushed its way into the tribal areas, marginalizing the archaic political structure in place since British rule and enabling clerics to gain more power.
The tribal elders who traditionally kept the peace lost their hold. More than 275 tribal elders who spoke against militants in the Waziristan tribal area have been killed since 2002.
Many have fled. Those who remain are turning increasingly against Pakistan and the U.S., which is blamed for military attacks and missile strikes launched from Afghanistan that reportedly killed innocent people.
"After they came to Afghanistan, the Americans became like devils for us," said Saleh Shah, a senator from South Waziristan who helped negotiate two truces with militants that later fell apart. "We have great hatred for them."
Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune