Pakistan's Military Holds Back in North Waziristan

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It took just a few months for the Pakistani military to clear the Swat Valley's lush, mountainous tribal terrain of its Taliban usurpers last summer, using some 30,000 troops to dislodge the guerrillas from the once-bustling tourist haven, 80 miles northwest of the capital Islamabad. Now, however, almost a year after winning the war, the same number of troops are still in place in order to hold Swat, rebuild it and prevent a Taliban resurgence — and that may keep Islamabad from going after the extremists in other parts of Pakistan's unruly frontier with Afghanistan.

The U.S. has often appealed to Pakistan to do just that, specifically against elements in North Waziristan. More than 200 miles south of Swat, the tribal territory is a base for militants targeting U.S. troops just across the border in Afghanistan; it is also believed to be a refuge for senior al-Qaeda leaders. Yet the Pakistani military has refused to go into North Waziristan because it says its forces are already stretched thin (the bulk of the country's troops are stationed along the eastern border with India, the nation Islamabad still considers its primary foe).

Opening up a new front in North Waziristan now, Pakistani military officials say, could undo the gains achieved in areas like Swat by diverting troops from areas they must continue to control. As one officer said, "To hold the ground, you have to be on the ground." The heavy security footprint, the Pakistanis argue, is aimed at avoiding the U.S. military's experience in Iraq, where some areas like Mosul north of Baghdad, once cleared, saw troops draw down only to have militants return and necessitate the re-insertion of American forces to clear them out again.

Indeed, the Pakistanis say, while they have largely cleared militants from Swat, which is in the North-West Frontier Province, as well as the South Waziristan and Bajaur areas along the Afghan border, the army remains engaged in battles in the Khyber district not far from Swat and nearby Orakzai, where the army claims almost daily double-digit Taliban kill figures (numbers that cannot be independently verified).

The Pakistanis also argue that there's more to holding an area than just boots on the ground. As part of its counterinsurgency strategy, the Pakistani military says it is taking the lead in eliminating the factors that helped the area fall to the extremists in the first place: poverty and bureacractic ineptitude and corruption. In Swat, it has set up joint civilian-military liaison cells, which bring together representatives of the military, provincial government and tribal elders. "There are so many reasons that we fell to them [the Taliban] and they took over, so many reasons," says Bakhd Zada, a tribal elder from Devlai, a town of some 30,000, 13 miles from Mingora in the Swat district. "There's poverty, lack of knowledge, and we were misguided," he says. "We need to educate the people and we need job creation. You know when you are empty minded and you have nothing to do, that is a place for demons to develop."

Lieutenant Colonel Akhtar Abbas, army spokesman in Swat, says the military is taking its cue from the populace. "We listened to them, we tried to solve their problems," he says. "They're our own brothers and sisters, we're not like the Americans in Iraq."

In Swat, the military has surged ahead of an excruciatingly slow civilian bureaucracy. Soldiers are reconstructing roads, bridges, health centers, water systems and libraries across the valley. The Army has recruited and trained thousands of police officers, and rebuilt 217 of the 400 or so schools destroyed by the Taliban. It is also footing the bill, thanks to a nationwide voluntary contribution of two days' pay by the troops themselves, a move that raised more than 100 million rupees (almost $1.2 million). The military is also much more efficient. Lt. Col. Abbas points to the restoration of a historic hostel in Swat as an example: Civil contractors estimate it would cost 80 million rupees for the reconstruction. The army did it for 20 million rupees, of its own money.

Commissioner Fazal Karim Khattak, the administrative head of the provincial government in Swat and seven other nearby districts, rejects criticism that the government isn't doing enough, although he admits that there is a heavy reliance on the military. The destruction is so widespread, he says, that it's "not really possible" for the government to do it alone. "I would recommend that the army stays here in the same numbers for quite some time," he adds, "because the civilian institutions have been ruined so much that it will take some time for them to stand on their own feet."

Still, some people say they are wary of the army's intentions — and its omnipresence. They fear that a military accustomed to being in control is unlikely to relinquish power and give up its space to civilian institutions. Lt. Col. Abbas dismisses such concerns. "Pulling [the military] back is the decision of the political government. Whenever they require us, we're here. If they say we are no more required, again we're happy," he says. "But since we're sitting here in the valley, we are reconstructing." And not going after the extremists in North Waziristan.