Taliban Out, but How to Prevent Return?


Down the long, dusty road leading to this outpost, where militants used to dump the mangled bodies of pro-government tribesmen, the shops lie in crumpled heaps of metal and brick. The mud homes that once dominated this mountainous landscape have disappeared back into the earth, victims of a six-month bombardment of Pakistani F-16s, tanks and paramilitary forces rooting out the Taliban.

The military says this was once the "center of gravity" of militancy in the area, and this weekend claimed that the Taliban here had "lost." If peace does come to this area and the army slowly leaves, it will hand over responsibility to a local administration with perhaps an even larger challenge than defeating an insurgency embedded into the population: preventing the militants from returning.

Eighty percent of the homes in Bajaur's combat zone, situated along a single road that runs through the tribal areas, were destroyed, according to the lead administrator of Bajaur. More than 300,000 of a population of a million fled to tent camps near the provincial capital. If all those people return to destroyed homes and businesses and do not believe the government is trying to fix them, there is a fear the Taliban could once again prey on a government vacuum.

"There is a lot of destruction that is caused due to collateral damage. The government must come with a huge development plan of reconstruction and rebuilding," Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman, told ABC News in Umari. He had just been given a colorful garland by local tribal elders, a ceremony of congratulations created for visiting media.

"If the reestablishment, or reconstruction, redevelopment, etc. is not on the heels, there is a possibility that yes, maybe the people may face the return of militants in the area. It may provide them the opportunity," he said.

This fight, in the northernmost of seven Pakistani tribal areas, was the Pakistani military's largest effort in the area since then President Pervez Musharraf allied himself with the United States after 9/11. Bajaur and Mohmand, the second agency visited during a daylong trip controlled by the military, lie across from Afghanistan's Kunar province. The single deadliest incident in years for Western forces in Afghanistan occurred last July, when militants attacked a joint American/Afghan outpost in Kunar, killing nine U.S. soldiers.

U.S. and Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed the huge increase in violence in Afghanistan since 2007 on militant safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas. This trip, for mostly foreign media, was an attempt to show that the Pakistani military is serious about defeating the Taliban.

It was offered at the same time that the provincial government signed a peace deal with the Taliban in the Malakand district, which includes the Swat Valley, just about 50 miles from Bajaur. In return for the Taliban agreeing not to terrorize the local population, the army has promised to remain in its barracks, and more than one quarter of the Northwest Frontier Province will fall under Sharia, or Islamic law.

Asked to describe the difference between Swat and Bajaur, Abbas said the military operation in Swat had caused too many civilian casualties, something the government could not handle politically.

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