Hustle and bustle returns to tribal areas, but US doubts commitment to war on terror

MIRAN SHAH: Clean, safe and secure. These are the supposed hallmarks of Pakistani tribal border regions touted by Islamabad, an image paid for with blood and treasure in a two-year campaign to clear North Waziristan’s provincial capital from groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and notorious Haqqani network.

But the new schools, homes and markets with their glistening coats of paint and freshly poured concrete mask a seeming ghost town.

Few residents of the largest city in North Waziristan rarely venture into the heart of the city center – the site of the some of the most intense clashes with radical Islamic militant groups that refuse to go away.

The fighting had become so intense that Pakistan’s military, at the onset of the operation, forcefully evacuated thousands of civilians into “temporary displaced persons” camps elsewhere within the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan – known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

From high atop Sarbanki Fort, one of several Pakistani army outposts manned by units from the “Golden Arrows” 7th Division, Brig. Gen. Jawad proudly pointed out for a small group of visiting reporters the burgeoning skyline of markets, schools, homes and businesses that cover a wide swath of Miran Shah’s new city center.

When asked what happened to the homes and businesses that stood in their place before the government offensive into North Waziristan, Gen. Jawad replied dispassionately, “They were no more. Wiped away clean.”

In the two years since the official end of the North Waziristan operation, Islamabad claims life has slowly returned to Miran Shah and the surrounding provinces, despite continuing complaints from the Trump administration and the Afghan government that Pakistan is not going enough to root outextremist groups that use the border regions as a sanctuary, training base and launching pad for attacks inside Afghanistan.

Maj. Gen. Azhar Ali Shah, head of all 7th Division forces in North Waziristan, said in a briefing that he has “taken a back seat” to Pakistani military and civilian-led redevelopment operations in Miran Shah, one of the largest cities in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

“In this whole area, I do not have any enemies,” he said.

One fresh sign of progress: Pakistan on March 10 announced the reopening of a key Ghulam Khan border post between the North Waziristan tribal region and Afghanistan, allowing for trade convoys to pass. The crossing was closed for three years after government forces launched a major operation against the Pakistani Taliban and foreign militants in the area.

At a low point in Islamabad-Washington relations, President Trump singled out Pakistan as a problem last summer in his revised battle plan for Afghanistan.

Gen. Joseph L. Votel, head of Central Command, which oversees the South Asian theater, and Gen. John Nicholson, who commands the 14,000-plus U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, recently called out Pakistan from what the Pentagon said was an insufficient effort in dealing with terrorist groups on its soil.

“Having sanctuary in Pakistan or having support from other actors in the region certainly is an aspect of the Taliban’s success here,” Gen. Votel told a March 14 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington. “I cannot tell you that we have seen decisive changes in the areas in which we’re working, but I remain very well-engaged with my [Pakistani] partner to ensure that we are moving forward on this.”

Radical links

Despite Pakistan’s public pronouncements, many U.S. officials and private analysts contend its powerful intelligence services maintain long-standing links to radical Islamist groups as a lever to pressure Kabul and as an asset in Islamabad’s rivalry with its greatest strategic challenge: India.

But Gen. Azhar said his country’s contributions and sufferings from the global war on terror, some with roots in the U.S.-backed war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, have been consistently overlooked by Washington and other foreign critics. Over 800 Pakistani soldiers died and 3,500 were wounded in the operation to flush out extremist groups from their redoubts in North Waziristan, he said.

In a thinly veiled shot at the American-led efforts to battle the Afghan Taliban, Gen. Azhar said his forces were able in two years to subdue the de facto center of the Haqqani network, a brutal Afghan militant group headed by warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani, while the U.S.-backed Afghan forces could not do the same across the border. Pakistan accomplished this without alienating the local population, which is critical to winning a guerrilla struggle.

“We did not fight the population; we [only] fought the terrorists” he said.

But that success has come at a cost that is evident from a quick survey of the landscape.

Bombed-out plots of land that once housed local businesses lay in tatters, as do mud-brick compounds that housed generations of Waziri families. Trash and debris line the newly paved roads that cross the former Haqqani stronghold.

Small black placards baking in the sun, erected by 7th Division troops, list the family names of those who owned the shops and homes, waiting for them to reclaim their property.

Those who have stuck it out agree with Gen. Azhar’s contention that the most dangerous place on earth has turned a corner.

Clad in a leather jacket over a traditional shalwar kameez, teacher Arif Ula recalled the days when his high school – located yards from a Pakistani combat outpost in the city center – was used as a mortar pit by Haqqani fighters during some of the most intense battles of the North Waziristan offensive.

“It was very bad, very dangerous,” he said in an interview, recalling the dilapidated school where he conducted classes during lulls in the fighting.

Mr. Arif, who has a Ph.D. in early childhood education and earned his master’s degree at California State University-Chico, recalled the day Pakistani forces moved his family from Miran Shah to a camp 80 miles north in the Swat Valley – a former Pakistani Taliban stronghold cleared months before the North Waziristan operation reached full swing.

“We were sad. We did not want to go” despite the violence, Mr. Arif said. “It was very far, and [Miran Shah] is our home.” But despite those hardships, staying in Miran Shah under the Haqqanis and Pakistani Taliban was not an option, he said.

“Things were very bad with them,” he said. “It was terrible. We could not live like that anymore.”

Teaching elementary and high school students at the new school built by the 7th Division on the site that was once a Haqqani mortar and artillery pit, Mr. Arif declares, “It is good to be home.”

Questionable victory

In the war that straddles the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, from Swat Valley in the northwestern Pakistan to Balochistan province bordering the Taliban heartland of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan, defining success has often been as complicated as determining which warring factions were fighting whom.

To Islamabad, the costly campaign carried out in North Waziristan, Balochistan and the Swat Valley is proof positive that Pakistan does not differentiate between good and bad groups.

“We do [counterterrorism] across the board,” said Maj. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed Anjum, inspector general for Pakistan’s Frontier Corps for Balochistan province, citing the more than 2,500 counterterrorism operations his units have executed in the past year.

“We do not discriminate between Haqqani [Network], Tehrik-e-Taliban – the Pakistani Taliban faction – and Lashkar-e-Taiba,” the terrorist group responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, he said during an interview at his headquarters in Quetta.

But skeptics say military operations have targeted select terrorist groups and jihadi groups that do not happen to be Pakistani proxies.

It is simply not true that Pakistan is going after all violent jihadi groups in South Asia, said David Sedney, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Even as Pakistani officials in North Waziristan and Balochistan were touting their successes this month, “there were multiple, credible reports Taliban battlefield commanders were in Pakistan for the last two months” making preparations for the upcoming fighting season, said Mr. Sedney, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia under President Obama from 2009 to 2013.

“Pakistan has to put on a good show” given the international pressures it faces, said Bill Roggio, senior fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

On the North Waziristan operation, “if the [terrorist groups] were anti-state, they went after you,” he said.

The border operation “gives Pakistan enough cover to play the victim card” to gain international support for battling extremists, Mr. Roggio said. But at the end of the day, the Pakistani effort consisted of “Potemkin raids and Potemkin actions” that brought little change in the status quo, he said.

Mr. Sedney said it appeared the 7th Division was able to flush Haqqani network fighters from the border areas in North Waziristan, but Gen. Azhar’s claims of the group’s demise were flat wrong.

“Is there a Haqqani headquarters in Miran Shah? No,” Mr. Sedney said. “But it is clear the Haqqanis continue to operate out of the Kurram Agency and maintain a significant presence in the country.”

The Kurram Agency is a largely Pashtun tribal area on the northern border that is the closest part of the country to the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Several American drone strikes have reportedly targeted top Haqqani leaders in Kurram Agency.

In Islamabad, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, director general for the Inter Services Public Relations, acknowledged that Pakistani intelligence and the CIA had exchanged information that led to “intelligence-based operations” in the tribal areas. But he would not provide details about the operations or the targets.


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