Image: Pakistan soldier in a remote tribal area
Emlio Morenatti  /  AP
A Pakistani Frontier Corp soldier along a road in the Kandaro Valley on Saturday. Analysts say a six-month offensive has driven back militants from towns and major roads in the remote, tribally ruled regions that borders Afghanistan.
updated 3/2/2009 3:51:25 PM ET 2009-03-02T20:51:25

Lines of wrecked shops, destroyed gas stations and huge bomb craters serve as evidence of the force deployed last week by Pakistani soldiers in retaking this town near the Afghan border from Islamic militants.

The military says the battle for Inayet Kali was a decisive one in an offensive that has beaten the Taliban insurgency in the Bajur tribal region, in what would be a rare success in Pakistan's much-maligned campaign against the militants.

With tanks, helicopters and 1,000 troops involved, the outcome of the operation suggests — in Bajur at least — that the army is not as unwilling or unable to take on the insurgent threat spreading across the nuclear-armed nation as some critics have charged.

Analysts said the six-month offensive had undoubtedly driven back the militants from towns and major roads, while the United States said last year it had helped cut down the numbers of fighters traveling into Afghanistan to attack U.S. and NATO troops.

But the experts note that past military gains have been short-lived in the remote, tribally ruled regions that border Afghanistan, with militants melting away into the mountains only to return when troops have gone back to their barracks. Military commanders acknowledged they had not captured any insurgent leaders in the current campaign.

There also are doubts that government representatives and tribal leaders weakened by the conflict will be able to manage the development and reconstruction needed to cement the gains and allow some 500,000 displaced people to return.

Bajur, roughly half the size of Rhode Island, is the smallest of Pakistan's seven tribal agencies, with about 1 million people spread out over a rugged, arid mountainous landscape. Pakistani officials have said it was the epicenter of the insurgency, a claim that some experts have said was exaggerated.

'Militants will make a comeback'
"To some extent, they have been successful in the military operation. They have been more consistent and been able to push the militants back," said Talat Masood, a retired general and political commentator. "But there needs to be economic and development work. Anything short of that and it will be only be a matter of time, and the militants will make a comeback."

Pakistan's commitment to the fight along the Afghan border has been persistently questioned because of its past nurturing of militants and a belief that it is soft on those who attack U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan but do not directly threaten its interests.

The army has deployed some 100,000 troops to the region, along with attack helicopters, tank divisions and F-16 jets.

President Barack Obama is weighing U.S. options for sharpening the fight on both sides of the poorly demarcated and porous frontier. But he has made it clear he expects concerted effort from Islamabad in the region, which is believed to be a likely hiding place for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.

While claiming success in Bajur, Pakistan's stretched army has announced no plans to launch similar offensives in North and South Waziristan, two other militant strongholds in the tribal belt that are frequently hit by suspected U.S. missiles fired from unmanned aircraft but have gone largely untouched by local security forces in recent years.

The government last month signed a cease-fire with Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley, which lies near the tribal regions, prompting concern among Western governments as well as many Pakistanis, who say the accord represents surrender to the extremists.

Military showcases gains
With criticism of that deal dominating media coverage, the military took reporters to Bajur and neighboring Mohmand tribal region for a brief trip Saturday to showcase its gains there.

Commanders said the militancy in Bajur was beaten and almost defeated in Mohmand. But in a sign the insurgents were still active, three troops were killed in Mohmand in two separate ambushes not far from where the reporters were visiting, according to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

In Bajur, the group was taken in a convoy of pickup trucks at high speed through the town of Inayet Kali, where days earlier troops had concluded the battle. The convoy did not stop until the outskirts, where reporters attended a ceremony — apparently for the benefit of the cameras — between commanders and tribal elders celebrating the victory.

Before the offensive, Inayet Kali and surrounding hills were under the control of the Taliban, according to residents interviewed by an Associated Press reporter who lives nearby. The town lies less than 30 miles from the insurgency-wracked Afghan province of Kunar.

On Feb. 18, the military gave townsfolk two hours to leave before the final push began, which involved 1,000 troops deploying tanks, helicopter gunships and troops. Several hundred militants fought back with rockets and ground fire, said Maj. Brig. Abid Mumtaz.

Some residents said they were forced out by militants wanting to use their houses, including shopkeeper Mohammad Riaz and his father, who died three days later of a suspected heart attack that Riaz said was brought on by the stress of moving.

"I have lost my father, my home and both my shops. This battle between Taliban and the army cost me everything," he said, adding the military was still preventing him and other residents from returning.

1,600 militants killed
Casualty figures for that operation were not given to reporters, but overall officers said more than 1,600 militants and 160 civilians had been killed in Bajur since September. The military also did not disclose the number of its own casualties.

Much of the town — like Loi Sam, another one visited in Bajur by reporters last year — was destroyed.

Pakistan's army, inexperienced in counterinsurgency operations, has made extensive use of artillery and airstrikes, resulting in major damage to infrastructure in Bajur. About 5,000 houses have been destroyed officials said.

Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan, the head of the Frontier Corps, said the military had done its job, and now the government had to step in.

"We know the place requires relief; it requires funding and development opportunities," he said. "Unless it is done, we will not help achieve the kind of stability in the agency we would like to see. The people will feel miserable."

Shafirullah Wazir, the representative of the federal government in Bajur, said 180,000 people had returned to Bajur in the last four weeks and that plans were being made to restore electricity and basic service to conflict-affected areas.

But Ariane Rummery, a spokeswomen for the United Nations refugee agency, which is helping people who have fled the region, said it had noticed no "discernible trend" of people returning.

Gul Rehman, another Inayet Kali resident living in a refugee camp in the main northwestern city of Peshawar, said he was not going anywhere for now.

"It's not just me, either. We are all waiting to see how long this peace lasts because we have heard these types of announcements before," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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