- Associated Press - Monday, January 3, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The leaders of the largest tribe in a Taliban stronghold in southern Helmand province have pledged to halt insurgent attacks and expel foreign fighters from one of the most violent spots in the country, the senior U.S. Marine general in Afghanistan said Monday.

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, who commands coalition forces in the southwest, said the deal was struck between local elders in the Sangin district and Helmand Gov. Gulabuddin Mangal with the consultation of coalition forces. The area has witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

However it is unlikely that the violence will cease immediately in Sangin as the die-hard Taliban leadership under the command of Mullah Mohammad Omar, which is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, will keep fighting.

But the cooperation of the tribal leaders in the effort to rid the area of insurgents could help shorten the war in one of the most violent places in Afghanistan.

In the past four years, more than 100 British troops died in Sangin and more than a dozen Marine have lost their lives since their deployment in mid-October. Getting local tribal elders to renounce the Taliban and join the political process has been a key part of the U.S. counterinsurgency plan in Afghanistan.

As part of the deal, Gen. Mills said “there was also a pledge from the elders that fighting would cease by insurgents against coalition forces and foreign fighters would be expelled from the area.”

He added that “we are cautiously optimistic of this agreement and will monitor whether it leads to reduced insurgent influence and a rejection of illicit activity.”

With the nearly decade-old war growing increasing unpopular in the United States and in many NATO capitals, success on the battlefield is an important part of President Obama’s plan to begin a gradual withdrawal of American forces in July 2011, and eventually hand over control of the country’s security to the Afghans by the end of 2014.

The war is also very costly at a time when the U.S. is slowly starting to emerge from recession. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States spent an average of $5.4 billion a month in Afghanistan in the budget year that ended in September, and the total cost since the war began stands at $336 billion.

The deal was made with the Alikozai tribe, the largest in the Sarwan-Qalah area of the Upper Sangin Valley. The tribe controls the majority of the 30 villages located in a 6.56 square mile region, said Mangal spokesman Daoud Ahmadi. The tribe last rose up against the Taliban in 2007 but failed because of a lack of resources and coalition help.

Sangin is a strategic region for the Taliban and one they do not want to lose. It is a key crossroads to funnel drugs, weapons and fighters throughout Helmand and into neighboring Kandahar province, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban. It is also one of the last remaining sanctuaries in Helmand where the Taliban can freely process the opium and heroin that largely fund the insurgency.

“The insurgents have already begun to strike back savagely at those who desire peace but so far the elders remain steadfast,” Gen. Mills said in a statement.

Gen. Mills said that his forces would continue to push into Taliban and insurgent-controlled areas and would fight back if confronted.

According to Mr. Mangal’s office the deal was struck on Saturday in the center of Sangin after 25 days of negotiations.

“As they are the majority in that area we can say this will be a successful process in that area,” Mr. Ahmadi said.

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