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Wariness in northwest Pakistan

Pakistani soldiers frisk people crossing from Afghanistan at the Chaman
border checkpoint.

WANA, PAKISTAN – A cricket tournament was held two weeks ago in this South Waziristan town for the first time in eight years – a testament, the Pakistan army says, to its victory over Taliban militants who long used the area to stage spectacular attacks across the nation.

But a few miles northeast, Pakistani soldiers standing sentry atop craggy brown peaks still take fire from insurgents, and family compounds below remain barren. A main road to the north is often laced with mines. And to the west is what the military says is its main problem: Afghanistan, where militants find easy refuge.

The Pakistan army launched a major offensive in South Waziristan a year ago, a centerpiece of a campaign against Taliban fighters in the rugged northwest. Using language strikingly similar to that of their U.S. counterparts across the border, military officials describe a counterinsurgency strategy of weakening rebels, strengthening the hand of local officials and winning the confidence of tribes that have long resisted outsiders.

But a rare visit here with the Pakistani army revealed that its effort is also challenged by some of the same obstacles U.S. soldiers face in Afghanistan. Pakistani troops are up against an indigenous enemy that blends in easily, a vacuum in local governance, a skeptical population and, military officials contend, a desolate border that insurgents easily cross.

“I’m sure the bulk of it is in Afghanistan,” the commander of the army division based here, Maj. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, said of the Taliban leadership his troops purged from South Waziristan.

South Waziristan is one of six areas, including the Swat Valley, where about 140,000 Pakistani troops are engaged against Taliban militants. More than 2,600 soldiers have been killed in those and other counterterrorism operations since 2001, according to the army. The current operations are “stabilization” efforts, not active offensives, said Lt. Gen. Asif Yasin Malik, who commands all troops in Pakistan’s northwest. In South Waziristan, 35,000 soldiers now focus on guarding roads, providing security for development projects and towns, and preparing for the return of about 41,000 displaced families, the first batch of which is scheduled to arrive next month, military officials said.

“The focus of the army and the political administration is people-centric,” said Akhtar, who added that he is determined to win the typical villager’s confidence. “I will go through his heart to his mind.”

Yet although the Pakistani Taliban, led by Hakimullah Mehsud, has abandoned its bases and camps in South Waziristan, bands of fighters continue to assert their presence with occasional gunfire, rockets and roadside bombs. That is particularly true in an abandoned area the military calls the Mehsud Triangle, a reference to one of two dominant tribes in the region.

A mobile militancy

The Pakistani army confronts similar challenges in other pockets of the semi-autonomous tribal areas, in part because successive offensives have pushed fighters to new locations. Shortly after the army declared victory in Orakzai agency last month, six soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing, and the Taliban publicly flogged 65 men for alleged drug dealing.

The center of militancy is now North Waziristan, where the Pakistani Taliban, which focuses its strikes inside Pakistan, has set up shop alongside al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network, which attacks coalition forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan has resisted rising U.S. pressure to launch an operation there, saying that it could imperil its gains in South Waziristan, spark tribal uprisings and create a new wave of refugees. new insert sunday from ap.

According to the Associated Press, Pakistani intelligence officials said a suspected U.S. unmanned aircraft fired four missiles at a house in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing at least six people. The officials said three of those killed were militants; the rest were locals harboring them.

The United States does not publicly acknowledge that it carries out drone strikes in Pakistan, but officials have said privately that the attacks have killed several senior al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, the AP said.

Higher on the list for Pakistan, Malik said, are offensives in Kurram agency, where long-standing sectarian strife is flaring, and Mohmand agency, where insurgents are displaying renewed force, sometimes from across the border.

“Everyone who is challenging the writ of the government of Pakistan, he is a problem for me,” Malik said, echoing others who said the Haqqani network is a U.S. priority, not a Pakistani one. “I can’t open three to four fronts. I don’t have the resources.”

Even as U.S. officials express frustration about North Waziristan, they also point out Pakistan’s need to consolidate gains. A recent White House report to Congress noted that an absence of government authority has resulted “in short-lived military gains that allow militants to regroup in these areas.”

Akhtar, the commander in South Waziristan, said that is one reason his soldiers will probably remain in place for two more years, at the request of local leaders.

Under the resettlement plan, 8,000 families are slated to voluntarily return next month to 13 relatively secure villages. Each family is to receive $300, winterized tents and food rations, said Arshad Khan, director of the Fata Disaster Management Authority. Military officials confidently said villagers would provide security for their settlements, according to British-era tribal regulations.

There are some positive indicators. On a recent day, soldiers here worked to pave a new road being funded by the United Arab Emirates. About $135 million in U.S. infrastructure assistance is funding, among other things, 135 other miles of new roads and electricity for a dozen villages.

The security situation “was very aggressive two years ago,” a U.S. development official said of South Waziristan. “It’s changed, certainly. Our people are able to work in a limited capacity, with the support of the military.”

Even so, public support is far from certain. Previous offensives in South Waziristan failed to keep out the Taliban, and the plan to resettle civilians has been repeatedly postponed this year. Some tribal leaders say they are disheartened by poor government rebuilding efforts in other post-conflict areas, such as Swat.

A recent U.N. survey of people displaced from South Waziristan found that about 45 percent want to return immediately. But most said they would first require food, health care, schools and water. Most said they had heard nothing about a government resettlement package.

Mistrust over relocation

In interviews, several tribal elders and displaced people living in the towns of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, which lie outside the tribal areas, expressed wariness about returning. Most, including some who are allied with the government, cited fears of a Taliban resurgence and fervent disbelief that the state would help them readjust.

“We have very little trust in the government, because no promises were kept in the past,” said a tribal elder from the town of Makeen.

The Taliban, for their part, appear to have heard about the resettlement plan. Pamphlets have appeared warning refugees to stay put.

A Mehsud elder interviewed in Tank said he would heed that for now.

“We are happy to go back – but unarmed, wearing our shawls on our shoulders, not hanging guns,” the elder said. “We don’t want any more bloodshed on our soil.”

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