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Friday, April 8, 2011

Pakistan Army hopes to win hearts and minds in South Waziristan

Iqbal Khattak [Central Asia Online]

WANA – Sector-in-charge Brig. Abu Bakkr has moved from conventional warfare to a hearts-and-minds campaign to squeeze out the al-Qaeda and Taliban remaining in border areas of South Waziristan – birthplace of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

“Broad engagement with the local population is what my priority and strategy is to consolidate gains made against militants through conventional warfare,” Abu Bakkr told Central Asia Online after a briefing on the situation in Khamrang Sector in South Waziristan, which stretches for 45km along the border with Afghanistan.

Until a few years ago, militants took advantage of the area’s high peaks, inhospitable terrain and a supportive or indifferent local population to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province.

The Pakistani army conducted its first commando operation in South Waziristan October 3, 2003, when it arrested several foreign fighters in the Baghar area of Khamrang.

“As long as the local population does not get onboard, fighting militancy (remains) difficult,” he said. Recognizing that the Taliban have exploited the area’s poverty, Abu Bakkr said, “We ought to help the local community improve their economic conditions.”

Local residents described profound economic deprivation and expressed hope the military’s presence would lead to gradual remediation of their problems. Above all, they hope for education, healthcare and communications.

“Roads, schools, hospitals, telephone and water supply schemes are what we need on urgent basis,” tribal elder Malik Baz Gul, 35, told Central Asia Online. Militants have less space to operate if authorities invest in the economic advancement of backward border areas, he said. 

With the frequency of clashes with militants in Khamrang Sector now at only 4% of their peak in 2004-2007, the military is engaging the community by addressing basic educational and healthcare needs.

The Ahmedzai Wazir tribes were the first to revolt against al-Qaeda elements when they drove out Uzbek militants, known for their inhumane treatment of the tribes, in the spring of 2007. Since then, the Ahmedzai Wazir areas have remained relatively peaceful, and the military has supported development projects worth billions of rupees. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani held a grand jirga with Ahmedzai Wazir elders last year to thank them for their support.

The military foresees spending about US $120m on highways and has other long-term economic plans to keep the population busy and productive.

“The (45km-long) expressway from Wana to Angoor Adda will open up a third route for trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan (after Chaman in Balochistan and Torkham in Khyber Agency), and it will benefit the residents of border areas of South Waziristan,” a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Central Asia Online.

The militancy first surfaced in Pakistan in South Waziristan, where the military battled al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 2003. 

If the security situation keeps improving, the military may consider handing over command to the Frontier Corps paramilitaries and withdrawing regular troops from border areas in the next two years, Abu Bakkar said.

One sign of improvement is the Wana Bazaar, where troops and shoppers can now mingle in relative security. An onlooker described the scene as “amazing” as soldiers passed through the kilometre-long bustling market, and tribesmen waved to soldiers and journalists. In 2007, the area was hostile and troops entered at their own peril.

Yet another sign of progress was the large number of tribal elders meeting with political officials and military commanders in the Scouts Camps – a huge compound housing offices and residential blocks of civilian and military officials. Such a scene was unimaginable only four years ago.

“We believe there is no excuse to delay execution of development projects after such a high degree of security (progress) in our areas,” tribal elder Malik Ajmal told civilian officials and military commanders during a jirga in Wana March 8.

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