U.S. Marines battling the Taliban in this insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan are increasingly dubious about prospects for a high-profile peace deal struck two months ago between the government and the area's largest tribe.
The agreement is vital to coalition efforts to win control of Helmand province's Sangin district, one of the country's biggest narcotics hubs that funds the insurgents, and a gateway for fighters to stream into Kandahar province, the Taliban's spiritual heartland.
Peace could also determine the fate of a nearby dam that provides electricity to southern Afghanistan.
High-level U.S. and Afghan officials insist the deal is working, and could become a model for other groups looking to switch allegiance from the Taliban to the government _ a key goal of the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus.
Elders of the Alikozai tribe agreed two months ago to prevent attacks on coalition forces in their section of Sangin in return for aid to build schools, clinics and other needs.
But attacks have continued against Marines in the Upper Sangin Valley, either from Alikozai who reject the deal or other fighters beyond the tribe's control, said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Sangin.
Fighting has been less intense than before the deal, but that applies throughout the district, a development the Marines on the ground in Sangin believe is driven by the normal winter lull and the hundreds of casualties inflicted on the Taliban.
"While some are still optimistic that the agreement is in place, others, including me, are much more suspect about whether there actually is an agreement or if they are capable of upholding an agreement," Morris, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, said in an interview.
Maj. Chris Bopp, the operations officer for the 2nd Marine Reconnaissance Battalion in the area, said it's hard to know how many Alikozai rank-and-file even know about the deal.
People in the Upper Sangin Valley say the recent attacks are being carried out by "foreign fighters," meaning fighters from outside their area, but that is a common refrain in Afghanistan and must be viewed skeptically, said Bopp, 37, from Catonsville, Maryland.
Morris estimated that at least 25 percent of the Alikozai don't agree with the peace deal and he doubted its supporters are strong enough to stand up to fighters from outside.
"It's obvious to me that the Alikozai cannot control their area or are choosing not to," said Morris, 40, from Oceanside, California.
Not everyone is pessimistic, however. The governor of Sangin, Mohammad Sharif, believes that given time, the Alikozai will manage to control their area. The top NATO commander in Helmand, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, is also upbeat because most of the attacks following the deal have occurred away from Rt. 611, which coalition forces have worked to secure and improve.
The road runs north to the Kajaki dam, the biggest source of electricity for southern Afghanistan. The dam needs a third turbine but the road has been too dangerous for equipment to be delivered. The peace agreement includes an Alikozai promise to keep the road open.
"The road has not been attacked and the road builders have not been attacked," said Mills, 60, from Huntington, New York. Regarding its security clauses, "I'm satisfied the agreement is holding," he said in an interview.
Taliban leaders were outraged by the peace deal and put bounties on the Alikozai elders involved in negotiating it, said Morris, the battalion commander. Days later, gunmen tried to kill one of the most prominent elders, Badar Agha, outside his home. He escaped, shot in the leg.
The Alikozai have fought the insurgents before. They rose up against the Taliban in May 2007 but got no help from coalition forces or the Afghan government and were crushed. Some tribesmen ended up being forced to join the Taliban, but many continued to resent "foreign fighters" on their turf.
Likely concerned about history repeating itself, many of the elders under death threat over the peace deal traveled to the Pakistani city of Quetta to talk to the Taliban leadership, said Morris. There are conflicting reports about what was achieved and whether the elders have returned to Sangin.
The Alikozai have failed to put together a 15-man governing council that was part of the deal, a delay that Morris believes is driven by fear of Taliban retribution.
He said that during the peace negotiations the Marines pulled out of the Upper Sangin Valley as a show of faith, but had difficulty getting a response from the fiercely independent Alikozai about whether they wanted coalition forces back or would view them as another foreign occupier.
After waiting more than a week, the Marines returned lest a power vacuum develop, Morris said.
"While many of them seem to want us here, they are tempering their emotions because they want to make sure that this is something that lasts and not something that's temporary," said Bopp.