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Dam may hold promise for peace in wild Pakistan region

Engineer Liu Zhangteng says he feels “very comfortable” when he walks to work at his construction site in the mountains of northwest Pakistan. It takes the presence of 1,500 soldiers to sustain his tranquillity.

Liu’s employer, China’s Sinohydro, is completing the biggest building project in Pakistan’s tribal region along the Afghan border, where the army is fighting Taliban militants.

The U.S.-funded Gomal Zam dam is a key part of Pakistan’s effort to undermine the appeal of Islamic guerrillas in Waziristan, whose northern region U.S. military chief Adm. Mike Mullen calls the world’s “epicenter of terrorism.”

The dam’s troops are among tens of thousands keeping control in South Waziristan and other areas that the army seized back from Taliban rule last year.

Pakistan’s government has failed to establish firm civilian authority or genuine popular support in the areas it recaptured, said political analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani lieutenant general, and Ashraf Ali, executive director of the FATA Research Center in Islamabad.

Its army has stayed close to the main roads and failed to engage Taliban who have re-infiltrated South Waziristan, according to a White House report.

The dam will generate electricity and irrigate farmland for residents whose support the government needs for its fight against militants. A more peaceful south may free Pakistani troops for an offensive in North Waziristan sought by the United States.

Construction began in 2002 and was delayed for three years after Taliban fighters kidnapped two Chinese engineers in 2004. One died in a Pakistan army rescue operation.

The dam is 92 percent built, its project director, said Col. Muhammad Zaheer, of the army’s Frontier Works Organization.

Its completion, plus the army’s construction of 137 miles of roads, will represent “the first time the government has actually implemented any of its many promises to bring development to South Waziristan,” said the FATA center’s Ali.

“That’s the hopeful part,” said Ali, whose center studies Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the border zone with Afghanistan that includes Waziristan and serves as a base for Taliban, al-Qaida and allied militants.
While the army has brought some calm to South Waziristan, it’s not clear whether the government can win popular support and undercut militancy, Ali said. After years in which the Taliban have killed 800 traditional tribal leaders in the FATA region, the government has been trying to establish an anti-Taliban leadership among the local Pashtun tribes, he said.

“They have had no success,” Ali said. “Candidates are reluctant to come forward because they don’t trust the government to protect them and to work cooperatively with the tribes.”

During a reporter’s visit last month to South Waziristan, a rocky, mountainous district the size of Delaware, Pakistani troops patrolled the roads in pickups mounted with machine guns.

Taliban gunmen have killed at least 10 Pakistani soldiers in small-scale attacks this month, according to reports in the newspaper Dawn, a toll that the army’s media office declined to confirm.

The army’s presence in South Waziristan has reduced Taliban attacks across the border into Afghanistan’s Paktika province, its governor, Mohibullah Samim, said in an Oct. 11 phone interview.

On Oct. 16, 2009, the army moved into South Waziristan to clear about 10,000 Taliban guerrillas based in the homeland of the Mehsud tribe. While other Pakistan-based Taliban mainly fight U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, the Mehsud faction had led a domestic insurgency, hitting Pakistani government targets.

More than 200,000 Mehsud civilians — most of the area’s population — fled before the fighting started and have spent the past year as refugees in nearby districts. While the army and government promise security and development help to those who go home, villages remain sparsely inhabited, tribal elders say.

The U.S. government agreed in July to pay $108 million for the dam. It will generate 17.4 megawatts of electricity starting in April, much of it for communities in and near South Waziristan, the Frontier Works Organization’s Zaheer said.

Pakistan’s power production this year has fallen 5,000 megawatts or more short of demand, the nation’s Water and Power Development Authority has said.

The government’s inability to stabilize recaptured areas such as South Waziristan and Swat, northwest of Islamabad, has left the army “literally pinned down,” delaying the possibility of any assault on North Waziristan, which is the main base for the Taliban, al-Qaida and other militants, Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an Oct. 16 interview on Bloomberg Television.

An assault on North Waziristan “could easily backfire” and “push militants back into the south,” Masood said.

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