By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
SARAROGHA, PAKISTAN -- A toy car booby-trapped with explosives, chemistry textbooks and handwritten case files from a Taliban court were among the debris left behind by fleeing Islamist militants in this remote village in the conflicted tribal region of South Waziristan.
The now-deserted village, which was retaken by Pakistani army forces two weeks ago and visited by Western journalists on Tuesday for the first time since, had been a stronghold of Taliban forces for nearly five years. Army officials described its capture as a military and psychological milestone in their month-old operation to flush militants out of the region.
"This place was a fountainhead of terrorism. All government authority was expelled, and the Taliban leaders even had press conferences here," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, standing on the roof of a mosque that overlooked the rubble of a market, school and military fort that were destroyed in five days of heavy fighting.
Yet even though army officials said they had killed 180 Taliban fighters in Sararogha, bringing their reported enemy toll to more than 550 since the Waziristan operation began, they acknowledged that hundreds more had melted away into the vast desert scrub and craggy hills surrounding this outpost, testing the army's will to continue pursuing them.
The Obama administration has been pressing Pakistan to move more aggressively against Taliban forces, a message that national security adviser James L. Jones was reported to have carried to Pakistani officials during a visit last week. In particular, U.S. officials have urged the army to move into neighboring North Waziristan, where most fighters are thought to have fled.
But Pakistani officials have bristled at the suggestion. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi declared Monday that Pakistan "will not be prodded by outsiders" into conducting specific military operations. Although Pakistan and the United States cooperate closely in the war against Islamist terrorism, the partnership has been fraught with frustration and clashing strategic goals.
Public resentment against the United States has grown with persistent reports in the Pakistani media that Xe Services, the U.S. contractor formally known as Blackwater, is operating in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban blamed Xe on Monday for a series of bombings against civilians, including a car bombing that killed more than 100 civilians in a Peshawar market late last month. In an English-language statement posted on its Web site, the Taliban said that Pakistani and U.S. government charges that insurgents were responsible for the blast were part of a plot "to create hatred among the common people" against the Taliban.
Xe is thought to have two Defense Department contracts in Pakistan -- one to construct U.S. training centers for the Frontier Corps, the Pakistani government security force that operates in the border regions, and another to assist in operations at a Pakistani air base in Baluchistan from where the CIA has launched missile attacks from unmanned aircraft against insurgent targets.
Amid the signs of bilateral military frictions, army officials seemed eager Tuesday to portray the recent capture of Sararogha, and another longtime Taliban stronghold in the village of Laddha about 20 miles north, as proof that their Waziristan campaign is moving ahead successfully. The army flew a group of journalists to the region by helicopter.
Army officials said they had carried out a three-phase strategy this month to encircle the area, attack Sararogha by air and finally send in ground forces. They said they met fierce resistance from rocket attacks and artillery in the surrounding hills but finally prevailed after a five-day battle.
Once in Sararogha, they found ample evidence of a Taliban mini-state. A school had been turned into a militia training center and courthouse, with classes in how to manufacture improvised explosives and formal hearings on local disputes. Directives on Taliban letterhead, left scattered in empty rooms, ordered certain mullahs to be given weapons and decreed that no marriage dowry should cost more than $900.
Morale seemed high among the hundreds of soldiers stationed in the two villages. Many wore long beards, and some saluted visiting officers with the Muslim greeting "Salaam aleikum." But they took pains to distinguish their notion of faith from the violent credo of the Taliban.
Officials in both towns said the majority of Taliban forces in the area seemed to be Pakistani, although they said a few had been Uzbek. There was not a single civilian visible in either place, only a few stray donkeys grazing among the rubble of ruined mosques, shops and schools. Army officials said that the inhabitants had fled during or before the recent fighting, but that once the region is secure, they hope the government can attract civilians back with new roads and development projects.
Despite the gung-ho mood in the wake of these recent advances, military officials acknowledged that the Taliban was well organized, armed and equipped, and that the campaign against the group is far from won. They estimated that there are 5,000 to 8,000 active Taliban fighters in Waziristan, which means that only a fraction have been killed.
"I do not see an end to this war," Maj. Nasir Khan said. "They want to stretch our resources thin and lure us into difficult areas. We cannot take on these monsters everywhere at once, but they are terrorists, and we must keep on fighting them."