KOTKAI (SOUTH WAZIRISTAN) – Amid pin-drop-silence, sparrows are flying over rugged mountains, on each hilltop, right under the national flag, officers and soldiers of Pakistan Army equipped with anti-aircraft guns and sophisticated technology are on high-alert. The entire population has been disarmed, no matter willingly or unwilling.
The mobile phone service has been disrupted. Markets are demolished and no Taliban-run seminary virtually exists on the ground. Kids are going to school and elders wave their hands with sliming faces as troops move on the beautifully constructed Tank-Jandola-Makin (TJM) Road. This is Kotkai in South Waziristan, the hometown of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud, his top aide Qari Hussain, and once the stronghold of Baitullah Mehsud.
“The command and control of Taliban has been dismantled. They are cornered and their leadership has been eliminated. The government writ has been successfully established in 90 per cent of South Waziristan. We are near to (achieving) 100 per cent,” said visibly confident Major-General Asim Saleem Bajwa.
The operational commander in the insurgency-infested region, Maj-Gen Bajwa, who is leading the troops on the frontline, says hectic efforts are underway to re-establish the lost institutions and to rebuild the destroyed with the slogan of ‘build better than before.’
“They (Taliban) are on the run. Except a few Taliban pockets in Kurram and Orakzai, the entire area in South Waziristan has been cleared of militants. Now, we are engaged in rebuilding and rehabilitation,” Bajwa told a group of Lahore-based journalists at a special news briefing held at highly-guarded Jandola Fort, once the stronghold of Taaj Gull Khan, who was killed in the operation.
For the very first June 3, 2009 when Pakistan Army had launched operation (Rah-e-Nijat) to flush out militants, media was granted access in the war-torn region, thanks to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).
While sitting in the artistically renovated small conference hall, where the model of a suicide jacket was displayed on the right side of the wall and maps and beautiful paintings depicting Islamic ideology on the other side, Bajwa revealed that the entire SAW had been sealed and any possible infiltration of militants was out of question.
He said at least 18 roads leading towards the settled area of the country from South Waziristan had been closed down permanently in order to thwart possible movement of suicide attackers from SWA to the rest of the country.
Responding to a question, the operational commander said, “War is difficult but not challenging.”
At the initial stage of the operation, army had suffered huge losses during fierce battle, which left more than 40,500 people including soldiers and officers martyred since 2009. A strong force of 147,400 troops has been deployed across the militancy-infested areas. At least 10,000 soldiers and officers were wounded or martyred during the operation only in 2009.
“At least ten personnel were martyred every day while fighting against militancy in 2009. But now things are under control by the grace of Allah Almighty,” said Maj-Gen Bajwa, who gave in-depth presentation with the help of multi-media projector and responded to each question thoroughly and confidently.
When asked about the capability and preparedness of the troops fighting on the frontline, he said Pakistan Army had been equipped with best and sophisticated weapons and technology. “We learnt of a lot of lessons over the year. The best-trained soldiers are taking part in the war against extremism. Our intelligence capability is excellent and unmatchable.”
When asked whether the troops would be withdrawn from the insurgency-hit region or they are there permanently, he replied talking about the exact timeframe at this stage would be premature.
“It may take a few years more. Once the institutions are re-established, civil administration takes the responsibility, and the infrastructure is restored properly, I think the troops would have no reason to stay further like Swat,” he added.
Another military officer during the visit told this reporter that the focus of the army was to revive the institutions, rehabilitation of the locals and rebuilding lost glory.
“If you want to fight and finish a war, this task could be completed in two to three months. But settling permanent peace takes years,” he maintained.
To another question, Bajwa said establishment of seminaries in the area had been banned. “Unfortunately, some of our foreign friends are more interested in building seminaries. We have requested them to help us build hospitals, modern schools, and infrastructure,” the operation commander said categorically.
To a question about foreign funding to militants, he said that Pakistan army recovered a huge cache of Russian, Indian and local made Afghani weapons from the terrorists during the operation.
Bajwa also disclosed that at least “38 foot-soldiers” of Taliban had been released in the recent past after their socio-religious therapy. Another batch of 50 suspects would pass through a special training at military-run De-Radicalisation and Emancipation Centre at Waziristan in the days ahead.
Pakistan Army, simultaneously, has launched various projects in different parts of South Waziristan to help the locals by establishing state-of-the-art schools, markets, hospitals and roads. It is also helping the local residents in agriculture farming, beekeeping and livelihood projects.
The army has constructed several markets and the shops have been gifted to the locals while more welfare projects are in the pipeline to generate job opportunities to the locals.
More than 6,600 families comprising some 32,000 persons, once called Internally Displaced Persons or IDPs, are residing in various parts of South Waziristan since the military allowed them to come back after purging the region from militancy.
50-year-old Awwal Khan, a resident of Chagmalai sector, said the army should never go back, fearing that the Taliban would return.
He is running a vegetable and daily-use-items shop, which had been gifted to him by the Pakistan Army.
“I am sending my kids to school. I wish they become officers like generals in the Pakistani army,” he told this reporter during a visit to the market.
Muhammad Waseem Khan, a 5th class student at Government High School Chagmalai said he wanted to complete his education. “I want to fly aeroplane to see the world,” the 12-year-old boy said who like thousands of others literally reside in the cave-houses.
Out of 16 schools in the region, at least 11 have been successfully made functional with 722 students attending their classes regularly.
The army is constructing century-old (270-km long) trade-route to link the region with Afghanistan in order to provide trade facilities to the local population. After Khyber and Chaman route, this would be the third route inter-linking Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The new trade route, DI Khan-Wana-Dera Bagh (in Afghanistan), would link the area with the Ring Road in Afghanistan on the other side of the border. At least 105-km long road has been completed while the construction is speedily underway on the rest of the project site. The drugs and weapon markets have been replaced with merchant, garments and daily-use item shops. Some 821 border posts have been established on the hilltops in order to deeply monitor the activities of the militants in the area.
Out of total 35 welfare-oriented schemes, at least 24 have been completed. The narcotics and weapon trade is completely and strictly banned in the entire region.
When asked, Maj Gen-Bajwa said this was the right time to build Reconstruction Opportunities (ROZs) to help the locals meet their trade needs. “Those who had promised this, should come forward and play their role,” he added.
He said at least 115 youth of the area, where literacy rate is even below 10 per cent, has been enrolled in the Pakistan Army while 110 new houses have been constructed to provide residential facilities to the local people.
During his visit to front-line check posts, Maj Gen Bajwa told journalists that the local political leadership must come forward to help the needy people in the settlement process. “Rehabilitation is not the basic job the army. This is the job of the politicians,” he maintained. The military has completed the construction of Spinkai Cadet College, right opposite to a leading Taliban-run Madrassa and the Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani would soon inaugurate this project.