Gul’s return to the scenic, mountainous Khyber tribal area that borders Afghanistan also depends a great deal on the Pakistani military — which has made little headway in three years against a relatively small concentration of Taliban-allied insurgents, raising questions about the security forces’ capacity and will to defeat them.
While the United States and NATO draw down combat troops in Afghanistan, Pakistan is still battling a fierce Taliban and al-Qaeda-allied rebellion that arose in part due to its alliance with the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In recent years, the Pakistan army has launched several successful operations to clear militant groups from other northwestern regions, and resettled millions of people displaced because of the fighting.
But the opposite is the case in Khyber agency: Because of the continued instability, more than 350,000 people from the Bara district, a longtime commercial hub, have fled to Peshawar, the closest relatively safe metropolis. About 61,000 refugees — including Gul, his wife and young daughter — now occupy the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ Jalozai camp, southeast of Peshawar. Officials say food supplies there are running short.
In Bara, where fighting has leveled homes, shuttered hospitals and businesses and impoverished those who remained, the Pakistani Taliban influence is growing, some residents said. This is particularly worrisome because convoys carrying NATO supplies to Afghanistan wind slowly through the surrounding areas, vulnerable to attack. Gunmen on Tuesday killed a truck driver in the first such attack since Pakistan ended its blockade of NATO routes three weeks ago; the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility.
The hard-core militant ranks are believed to number about 500. Estimates of troop strength on the Pakistani side — mainly the paramilitary Frontier Corps, commanded by Pakistani army officers — top 5,000, but neither figure could be independently confirmed.
“Not a single village has been cleared by security forces,” said Abdul Wahid Afridi, a leader in the secular Awami National Party who is based in Khyber. “The militancy could be collapsed. All the people are asking, why can’t the army eliminate them? Why not, after three years?”
To Haseebullah Khan, 37, another refugee from Bara, the answer is simple. “They don’t want to do it,” he said. “This is beyond our thinking.”
Pakistani military officials did not respond to e-mailed questions. Foreign journalists are barred from Khyber agency and Pakistan’s seven other semiautonomous tribal areas, so it was not possible to corroborate the refugees’ statements.