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."
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 probably will remain in place for another two 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 own settlements, according to British-era tribal regulations.
"This is a test case," said a senior Pakistani government official who was closely involved in the resettlement plan but was not authorized to speak publicly about it. "Their return is the key to the security of South Waziristan."
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 the electrification of 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 the Taliban out, 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 one tribal elder from the town of Makeen.
The Taliban, for its part, appears to have heard about the resettlement plan. In Tank and Dera Ismail Khan, pamphlets have appeared warning refugees to stay put.
"We urge the Mehsuds not to return to Waziristan at this point, as they would come under attack during our clashes with the security forces," Azam Tariq, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman, told one local journalist in a recent phone interview. "Stay away from Waziristan."
A Mehsud elder interviewed in Tank said he would heed that for now. He said that he knew of no elder willing to form a village defense force, and that people preferred to wait until their assistance was not needed.
"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."
Khan reported from Tank and Dera Ismail Khan. Staff Writer Greg Miller contributed to this report from Wana.