Mar 11, 2009

Pakistan Regains Control of Remote Area, for Now

After a six-month campaign, the Pakistani military is claiming victory over the Taliban in Bajaur, a northern sliver of the tribal areas, saying the militants have suffered heavy losses and have been pushed over the border into Afghanistan.
As evidence, the military this month showed off the once-busy, mile-long marketplace here, captured from the militants and pulverized to bits of concrete and mounds of dust. A tank was still parked in the remains of a shop.
“The resistance has been broken down. We control the roads,” said Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the inspector general of the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force responsible for security in the tribal regions. “They have lost.”
Already, Pakistani officials are hailing Bajaur as a landmark turn in the battle against Islamic militants and are trying to persuade the 300,000 people displaced by the fighting here to return, aided by a $19 million program financed by the United States.
But beyond the bounds of a tightly guarded tour of Bajaur for reporters, the larger battle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, whose fighters are deeply entrenched across northwestern Pakistan, seems unsettled.
Residents and Western military experts, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the political situation, said it was likely that rather than being finally uprooted from this slice of Bajaur and a nearby stronghold in Loe Sam, the bulk of the Taliban forces had retreated to mountain enclaves, waiting to return, as they have so often, when the military eases off.
At the same time, a recent truce between the Pakistani government and Taliban forces who have seized the Swat Valley, an area just east of here, has called into question the military’s ability and the government’s willingness to take on the militants with finality.
The heavy bombardment and troop concentration, cited by the military as its winning formula here, have alienated much of the population, according to interviews with residents and refugees from this area. The joint Pakistani and American plan to keep this area free of the Taliban hinges on meeting the tough challenge of rapidly winning the support of these displaced people.
“If the government doesn’t build and attract tribesmen back quickly, and do things to put money in their pockets, there is every likelihood of a reversion to the militants,” said Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the North-West Frontier Province, who is working on the Pakistani-American effort for Bajaur.
Among other things, he said, the displaced need agricultural help.
“The economy doesn’t exist now,” he said.
Under the joint program to bring refugees back here, essential services like electricity and water would be repaired, damaged homes rebuilt, and cash-for-work programs started, the representative of the federal government in Bajaur, Shafirullah Wazir, said. The plan envisions creating a new civilian volunteer force, backed by the paramilitary Frontier Corps, to help keep order, an American official said.
But many obstacles must be overcome, including convincing disaffected tribal elders who have been singled out by the Taliban and abandoned by the government that it is in their interest to return, the officials said.
One of them is Idrees Khan, a tribal elder from Inayat Kalay who with his four brothers owns most of the properties in the ruined marketplace. He said he had been asked by the government to return now that the military campaign was over. But now, he said, he has conditions.
A natural ally of the government, whose duty as a tribal leader is to act as a broker between the militants and the authorities, Mr. Khan said he left Inayat Kalay two months ago when it was clear that the military was planning to attack.
He left with bad feelings and remains bitter, he said. The family tried under tremendous odds to stave off the Taliban in December, he said. When the militants attacked one of their houses near the market and his brother called for help, the army showed up late and was of little help, he said. A helicopter gunship came after the Taliban had fled, but it shot at the family house anyway, severely damaging it, he said.
“The government betrayed my brother,” he said in an interview in Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province.
“We want compensation for the structures that have been demolished,” Mr. Khan said, “and we want accountability from the government and the Taliban.”
Despite the government’s assurances, many refugees said they were not convinced that it was safe to return.

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