After major South Waziristan offensive, Pakistan still faces serious obstacles

By Karin Brulliard and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 10:32 AM

WANA, PAKISTAN - A cricket tournament was held last week in this South Waziristan town for the first time in eight years - 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 one year ago, a centerpiece of a campaign against Taliban fighters in the rugged northwest. Using language strikingly similar to 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 Pakistan 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 counterterror 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 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 area. Last month, a bombing at a South Waziristan market killed one person and injured eight others.

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.

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 an American priority, not a Pakistani one. "I can't open three to four fronts. I don't have the resources."

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